Thursday 15 December 2022

The Case for Nuclear

ADDED (19 January 2024): Greenpeace 10 favourite myths about nuclear debunked. Zion Lights

The prompt for this post was discussion with an Australian Green Activist (GA) friend, anti-nuclear, who said she would be interested in reading my best argument in favour of nuclear. This is my attempt, as at December 2022, which I’ll update from time to time. 

Welcome to comment on how to frame this better and more persuasively.

I’m not arguing for only nuclear, or even for majority nuclear. Just that nuclear ought to be in the mix of carbon-free electricity generation options. The weird thing is that on the pro-nuclear side, we are more than happy for renewables to be part of the mix. But on the renewables side, they are (mostly) not at all willing to consider nuclear. That must change. IMO.

According to the Greens we have a “climate emergency”. Yet the option of nuclear energy is not on the table. Weird. (A Thing I dont get).

That strikes me as similar to saying “we have a pandemic, but we won’t use vaccines". It is possible to control the  “climate emergency” without nuclear. But it is less efficient and will take a lot longer. 

When I asked my GA friend what her objections to nuclear were, she said:

  • Waste: how to deal with it? There has been no suitable solution so far (she says).
  • Safety: what about Chernobyl? What about Fukushima? (she asks).

 GA did not mention costs of nuclear, though that often comes up. Or the lead-time in building nuclear. I will also address these as they are often cited.



1. History: we’ve been going for 70+ years generating electricity with nuclear power. We have had no issue with handling waste. In fact, nuclear is the only source of power which cleans up its own wast. Consider coal and oil, for example. Their wast simply vents to the atmosphere. Even solar and wind, when their equipment is worn out, it’s simply dumped. Nuclear, by contrast, handles its waste extremely carefully and does away with it in ways that are safe and reliable. 


2. Waste is stored in glassified (aka “vitrified”) vats called “Dry Cask Storage".  These have been destruction-tested by crashing semi-trailer trucks and diesel locomotives into them, and they have survived. This is the medium to long-term solution, and it’s working fine. 

The very long-term solution -- over 100,000 years -- is described by Elina Charatsidou’s video above: high-grade waste inside thick steel containers, inside thick copper containers, buried 500m below ground, encased in bentonite clay and back-filled by cement. They are doing this in Finland already. 

3. In some places Nuclear Waste is being kept accessible as it can be used as feedstock in Gen4 reactors.

4. 96% of nuclear spent fuel is recyclable.

You have to be determined to find a problem with nuclear power to believe the waste issue is a major impediment.


What do Greens and GA mean by “safety”? If they mean that any energy generation must be100% safe, then no method is safe. There is simply no way of generating electricity that is 100% safe

Therefore “Safety” must mean “relative safety”. How safe is nuclear, relative to other means of generating electricity? And the answer is:

Nuclear is amongst the very safest ways to generate electricity (and the cleanest):

Nuclear power generation is amongst the very lowest in “Death rates from accidents and air pollution” and “Greenhouse gas emissions”. The only one slightly better, and only very slightly so, is solar. 

What about Chernobyl and Fukushima? First, they were both ancient technology. Designed in the 60s, with slide rules and pencils. These days nuclear power stations are designed differently so that the events that struck Chernobyl and the natural disaster that struck Fukushima, cannot happen. The shortcomings of both Chernobyl and Fukushima have now been designed out. Even in the dying days of the Soviet Union, Moscow learned lessons from Chernobyl and retrofitted their remaining nuclear stations so that a similar event could not happen (as with so much in the world, the original design flaw that led to the partial melt-down was due to money: they were trying to save costs...). 

Despite both Chernobyl and Fukushima being ancient designs, the number of people killed initially or who later died from the radioactive effects, was remarkably low (100 in Chernobyl and 1 at Fukushima. While Nuclear has saved 2 million lives vs coal). Our World in Data has an essay on the topic. OWiD is a non-partisan site, based at the University of Oxford. It is widely recognised as one of the best sources of global data. 

ADDED (July 2023): “Chernobyl should make you scared of everything except nuclear energy"



What of costs?  “Nuclear is just too expensive”, say many Greens. But:

1. You need to look at the “Levelised cost of electricity. That is, you can’t just look at the cost of building. You need to look at the building costs plus the ongoing costs over the life of the project. On that basis, nuclear power production is amongst the lowest cost producers of electricity.
Nuclear power costs are $0.10/kWh, the same as Onshore wind,
Geothermal and Hydro; less than Offshore wind and Concentrating Solar
and far less than PV Solar
The figures above are from the US Department of Energy. They show clearly that over the life of a project nuclear, far from being expensive, is among the very cheapest ways to generate electric. 

2. Up-front Costs have been inflated by the demands of Green pressure groups to make far more safety demands on nuclear than on any other means of producing energy. Green groups, and in particular Greenpeace, have made the upfront cost of building nuclear very expensive by these over-extensive safety demands, and then concentrated on the upfront costs to make it appear that nuclear is very expensive. 
It is not.

Some of the over-reaching safety demands could be eased without any meaningful reduction in effective safety. We make such trade offs all the time. For example, cars: it would be safer to reduce the speed limit to 10 m.p.h. or ban them entirely. We don’t do that because we are sensible and we balance risks. Same for nuclear: we need to balance the relative risks with the benefits of carbon-free base energy. 
It can be done. It should be done. Especially if it is true that the climate issue is now, really, truly, an “emergency”. 

3. Small Modular Reactors are much cheaper than large nuclear power stations. Nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers have been nuclear, without accident, for 70 years. SMRs are being rolled out across the world and will both reduce the upfront costs and provide more flexible energy for smaller populations. 

ADDED (July 2023): Costs are not something that Greens ought be concerned about or raise as a “negative” for nuclear energy. Costs of building a nuclear plant ought be the concern of those financing nuclear plants. If the financier and operators don’t think it’s viable, they don’t do it. If they do, they do. Leave it to the market. 

Lead-time in building nuclear

Nick Clegg (ex Leader of the British Liberal Democratic Party), said in February 2010
By the most optimistic scenarios from the government itself, there’s no way they are going to have new nuclear come on stream until 2021, 2022. So it’s just not even an answer.”  
At the time of updating (July 2023), that’s last year. If the UK had ignored Clegg, they would already be enjoying clean, safe nuclear power, instead of their expensive natural gas. 

This objection on time taken to build says more about the short-term thinking of the anti-nuclear crowd (“The enormous costs of short-termism”), of its unfounded fear that mankind has “only ten years to survive”, than it does with any logic. Yes, it takes a while to build a nuclear power station. But then it lasts for many decades. We can’t say the same for Wind and Solar. (Some wind and solar projects will last only a decade). 

ADDED: there’s a reason the building takes so long. That the safety regimes that have been foisted on the nuclear industry, of a level far beyond any other technology and far beyond what is reasonable, have been foisted on it by the Green movement, for this very reason: to make the build take “too long” and to make it “too expensive”. In large part this tactic has worked, at least as rhetoric, as "time & expense" continue to be trotted out as nuclear negatives by the Green movement.

By the way, none of this is to suggest any slowing down of Renewable Energy. We should of course keep building these out, as fast as possible. 

I argue here -- as do many scientists all over the world --  that Nuclear ought be part of the mix of energies, and that the objections from Greens don’t hold water. And never have. 

Carbon-Equivalent Emissions and Air Pollution  (ADDED (July 2023): 

Some critics claim (e.g. Mark Jacobson, item 6) that nuclear power emits a lot of CO2 in its lifecycle. It does, but less than the other means of producing electricity. As with all the items above, when you say “x is bad because of y”, you need to consider “compared with what?”. What are the good parts of “x” and what are those “y” bad effects, and how does each compare with the competition?
Everything has a bad aspect to it, including how we generate electricity. 

Here is the United Nations Economic Committee with figures on “Lifecycle GHG emissions” for different means of generation. Nuclear has the lowest:
ADDED (3 July 2023): The Green Activist told me a few days ago that she doesn’t want to read what I’ve written. She doesn’t want to know the pro arguments. How does one deal with that? Other than with a shrug and get on with life.... I guess. Another Thing I Don’t Get. Also hypocritical, isn’t it? 

UPDATE 21 July 2023. I was sent an anti-nuclear article, by an Occasional Reader. The article is “The 7 reasons why nuclear energy is not the answer to solve climate change” by Mark Z. Jacobson

First Jacobson constructs a straw man. He claims:
“There is a small group of scientists that have proposed replacing 100% of the world’s fossil fuel power plants with nuclear reactors as a way to solve climate change” 
This is a Straw Man, because I’ve been following the nuclear issue for years and don’t know of anyone proposing 100% replacement of fossil fuel power plants with nuclear. We propose that nuclear be considered as part of the mix to help fix climate change. 

Having set up this straw man, Jacobson proceeds to flog it mercilessly. How this for schtick: 
One nuclear power plant takes on average about 14-1/2 years to build, from the planning phase all the way to operation. According to the World Health Organization, about 7.1 million people die from air pollution each year, with more than 90% of these deaths from energy-related combustion. So switching out our energy system to nuclear would result in about 93 million people dying, as we wait for all the new nuclear plants to be built in the all-nuclear scenario. [my emphasis]
Amazing! This is a version of the “you have blood on your hands”, that we heard during the pandemic, if we didn’t fully go along with all the mandates. It’s powerful persuasion, but bogus. You can say it with anything. Go out driving your car and “you’re putting people at risk”. We can all play the game. How about this framing: the Greens stopped the development of nuclear power stations in the 1970s. Therefore they are responsible for fifty years of air pollution deaths. So, "failing to allow the switch-out to nuclear, the Greens have the blood of 350 million people on their hands!”. Absurd, of course, but no more than Jacobson’s contention, which is an emotional trick, not worthy of publication.