Last night I was awakened by the news that my father had lapsed into what was to prove a brief coma, that was to end with his death. I was unable to sleep, and my thoughts turned to my father’s final unpublished report to the National Academy of Science.
During my father’s (C.J. Barton, Sr.) last 18 months before his retirement much of his time was spent preparing a report for the National Academy of Science. The report encountered many objections from peer reviewers, and main objections focused on research that was being conducted at ORNL and which was reflected by the report. The topic of my father’s report was the movement of radioisotopes in the environment, and ORNL research was clearly pointing at some of the human consequences for the energy policy choices of the Ford and Carter Administrations.
By the mid 1970′s my father probably knew as much as anyone in the world about radio-isotopes in the environment. Indeed his knowledge of the topic was undoubtedly the reason why he had been chosen to write the report. During the years my father was George Parker’s partner in nuclear safety research, Parker specialized in the study of how radioisotopes escaped reactors, while my father focused on what happened to them once they got into the environment. Even after he returned to Molten Salt research in 1964, my father was asked to study the movement of radioisotopes that had been released into the environment during Cold War operations of the Oak Ridge facilities. Thus the study of radio isotopes in the environment, either from human sources or later from natural sources was my father’s entry into the Health Physics and later the Environmental Studies division, as the Reactor Chemistry Division of ORNL fell apart.
My father, although close to retirement, was very enterprising in promoting the study of radiation from natural sources. It appears that he was one of the pioneering researchers on the problem of natural radon in the home. In addition to Radon from subsurface sources, my father noted that natural gas was a source of radon in the home. Indeed studies of the transport of radon into American homes through natural gas pipe lines does not appear to have progressed much beyond the point my father left it in the mid 1970′s. Bob Moore was associated with my father in the natural gas research. In addition Moore was also involved in a better known ORNL research project that investigated radio isotopes in coal ash. My father would have been very interested in that line of research. These lines of ORNL research were perhaps what troubled the National Academy of Science reviewers.
My father defended his report vigorously and eventually the reviewers signed off on it, but the National Academy of Science appears to have never published it. At the very least my father was never told of its publication and it is not listed among my father’s professional papers listed on the Energy Bridge. Thus the report disappeared and I suspect was suppressed. Why you might ask?
The reason might be found in a couple of my father’s post retirement papers which I believe reflected some of the thinking that went into his National Academy of Science report. What was on my father’s mind was simple. People were and are far more likely to be exposed to radio isotopes from the burning of fossil fuels, coal and natural gas, than they were to be exposed to radio-isotopes from power producing reactors. The “Linear (No-Threshold) Hypothesis,” holds that there is no lower limits to the damaging effects of radiation. Critics of nuclear power using the Linear Hypothesis often hold that even a tiny amount of radiation that escapes into the environment from power producing reactors has an adverse impact on human health. What my father, Bob Moore and other Oak Ridge scientists had shown was that far more radiation coming from radio isotopes like radon, was escaping into the environment and entering the bodies of people from fossil fuel burning, than was coming from nuclear reactors.
My father’s research had shown that radioactive isotopes like radon were being transported through natural gas pipelines into homes all over the country. Other researchers had shown the presence of radioactive isotopes in coal fly ash, that was entering the lungs of people who lived in surrounding areas. From this information it was not difficult to calculate exposure rates and given the “Linear (No-Threshold) Hypothesis,” the effects of radiation exposure from fossil fuel burning would be very predictable in terms of its health and mortality consequences.
The Linear (No-Threshold) Hypothesis, is itself questionable. There is powerful evidence when people are exposed to radiation from natural sources, there is a threshold below which no adverse health consequences can be observed. It is irrational to argue that radiation from natural sources is somehow different than radiation from reactors. Radiation is radiation. Thus my father’s conclusion would have been that given the facts and the “Linear (No-Threshold) Hypothesis” radiation exposures from burning fossil fuels killed tens of thousands of people. The implications of my father’s report then would have been to show that a transition to nuclear power could have a positive consequence for human health and might save the lives of tens of thousands of people every year.
In effect my father would have turned the reasoning of the enemies on its head, by showing that given their own beliefs about the health consequences of radiation , a far more serious radiation problem was caused by not turning to nuclear power and continuing to burn fossil fuels. Needless to say the coal barons, the natural gas producers and anti-nuclear leaders like Ralph Nader, Helen Caldicott, Amory Lovins and Joe Romm had an interest in seeing my father’s report suppressed.
My father’s conclusion would have been unacceptable to the fossil fuel lobby and their
political allies, the anti-nuclear movement. There would have thus been a powerful political interest in suppressing my father’s National Academy of Science report, and as far as I can determine it was in fact suppressed. To say the least, my father’s conclusions were buried.
(My father died at 1:40 AM this morning in Oak Ridge. His research pointed to the possibility of a better life for all the people of the Earth through LFTR technology. He leaves to us as a legacy the realizing those possibilities, and an example of a life well lived in service of a high moral purpose.)
My father, Dr. Charles J. Barton, Sr. had his 97th birthday last Friday. I wish to make note of his many contributions to fluid salt reactor technology, while he is still with us. He was in on the ground floor of LFTR/MSR development.
I suspect, but it is now beyond verification that my father was consulted on the viability of the molten salt concept, and after a literature review, he supported the project. It is likely that he has forgotten the role he played in the inception of project to develop a molten salt reactor, but typically in Warren Grimes group my father was the one who did the literature reviews. Since Alvin Weinberg says he asked Grimes for his opinion, Grimes would have asked my father to do a literature review, and then sought his opinion. Grimes would have reported back to Weinberg on the basis of what my father found in the literature. At any rate my father began his research on molten salt chemistry in early July 1950. He was administratively transferred from Y-12 to X-10 (ORNL) at the same time. But he continued to work at Y-12, and indeed did not move to X-10 in 1959.
The ANP project had originated at K-25, the gaseous diffusion plant. There was by 1950 a rationalization of research in Oak Ridge, with the K-25 engineering group that had done the initial Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion research as well as Grimes Y-12 materials chemistry group. My father’s initial assignment was the chemistry of Fluoride Salt carriers and fuels. Research conducted under my father’s supervision showed that a NaF, ZrF4, UF4 salt mixture would make a satisfactory although in some respects not ideal core fluid. Zirconium was available because my father’s earlier research at Y-12 had lead to an industrial process for the separation of Zirconium from Hafnium. Because of the danger of working with Beryllium, it was decided to defer use of a superior formula also involving the use of Lithium7. The more satisfactory salt mixture (LiF, BeF2, UF4) had already been identified, but its use was delayed until the molten salt reactor experiment. My father and Warren Grimes held the patent on the NaF, ZrF4, UF4 salt mix. The LiF, BeF2, UF4 mix was not patentable, because the use of BeF2 had been suggested by an outside contractor. So my father must be credited with pioneering research on the two most commonly mentioned fluid salt formulas.
In addition by the mid 1950′s my father was also researching chloride salt chemistry, a separate molten salt track that had the potential of eventually yielding a molten salt fast breeder.
Shortly after my father was assigned to investigate the chemistry of plutonium in molten salt reactors. He successfully demonstrated that plutonium could be used as a fuel in MSRs.
By the end of the 1950′s he was also investigating the chemistry of extracting protactinium from reactor salts. However that research temporarily stopped when in 1960 he began to assist George Parker on in nuclear safety research. In 1962 my father was asked to research the use of a Molten Salt blanket for the extraction of usable energy from thermonuclear reactors. This research appears to have been pioneering, and although my father did not research the breeding of thorium in the blanket, this was an obvious next step. Finally in 1964 my father was asked to continue his interrupted protactinium extraction research project. This he continued to do until 1967 when the project was removed from the reactor chemistry division, and transferred to the Chemical Engineering division. That division assigned considerably more researchers to the protactinium project than my father had in support of his research.
At any rate we end up with the following liquid salt credits: for my father:
1. Pioneering research on the NaF, ZrF4, UF4 salt mixture concept, and shared credit for the final reactor formula.
2. Shared pioneering research on the LiF, BeF2, UF4 salt mix, and the creation of the final formula.
3. Pioneering research on Chloride salts for reactor use.
4. Pioneering research on the use of plutonium as a MSR fuel.
5. Pioneering research on the extraction of protactinium from blanket and core salts.
6. Pioneering research on the use of molten salts in a blanket to extract power from a thermonuclear reactor.
Creating a Thorium Grand Plan has been one of the major, ongoing projects of the Energy from Thorium discussion section. At the moment that plan is far from complete, and perhaps the most significant reason why this is the case is that participants in the discussion, including myself, have not yet asked the questions to which the plan must provide answers. In order to do that, we need to cast the creation of the plan into a top down mode, beginning with plan goals, and then proceeding to identifying critical steps that would have to be taken in order to implement the plan goals.
the burning of fossil fuels has a negative impact on human health, and fossil fuel pollution cost advanced societies tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in health related expenses. These expense and the suffering which fossil fuel pollution related illnesses impose on their victims are part of the hidden cost of the fossil fuel economy, cost which are not born by the free market.
the United States cannot afford to go on importing oil at its current cost. To do so would bring utter ruin to the American economy. Energy for the american economy must be found in local resources. Furthermore both renewable energy systems and energy systems based on conventional nuclear technology are far to expensive to be affordable within the expected time range for peak oil, a phenomena that will assuredly bring a drastic increase in the price of imported oil. It isnot clear when worlkd coal production may peak, but some authorities regard coal reserve figures as overstated, and that peak coal may be in the offing within the near future.
the threat of of Anthropogenic Global Warming , tied to the burning of fossil fuels cannot be discounted. Scientific studies of the long term consequences of AGW point to issues that are rightly matters of serious concern, and could lead to significant, large scale and wide spread property damage, adversely impacting the economies of many countries. In addition to property damage AGW could lead to significant population displacement, through sea level rises, that could submerge many costal areas within the coming centuries, In addition, increasing desertification of many already arid areas, a phenomena anticipated by many climate models, could lead to a loss of water resources that make habitability of areas like Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California possible. Even if this threat is more unlikely than many scientists believe it is, it should not be disregarded. Indeed i personally believe that scientists have made a very compelling case that AGW is a reality that should not be ignored.
I set out the health and economic reasons for fossil fuel replacement. These reasons are universal and potentially effect everyone on earth. In addition to the reasons i have outlined, the ending of world wide poverty would require new and massive energy resources that can be deployed world wide.
Thus the goal of of the Thorium Grand Plan can and should be nothing less than the the reduction of world wide use of fossil fuels by as much as 80% to be accomplished by 2050, and the deployment of enough safe, non-polluting, sustainable and reliable energy sources that everyone in the world will have access to levels of energy now enjoyed in Western Europe. The Thorium Grand plan ought to be designed to assure that meetings these goals are a realistic possibility, through the use of thorium resources and through the implementation of advanced thorium energy technology. I realize that this is an extremely ambitious undertaking, but I believe that these goals can be accomplished, provided that the implementation is guided by a radical shift of thinking to what I call the LFTR paradigm.
In the rest of this essay I want to focus on one problem that must be overcome if the full promise of the LFTR paradigm is to be realized. That is finding enough fissionable materials to quickly start a large number of LFTRs over a relatively short period of time. Although a well designed LFTR will create slightly more fissionable U-233 than it burns, the surplus will in no way allow for a rapid increase of new LFTRs, once the stock of available fissionable materials is exhausted. The available stock of fissionable materials would include the plutonium in post reactor Light Water Reactor fuel, stockpiled Pu-239 and U-235, that is surplus to current weapons requirements, and the possibile draw down of nuclear weapons to provide further fissionable material for reactor startup. In addition further U-235 resources are available. The Uranium in post-reactor fuel could be re-enriched, possibly using laser enrichment technology. In addition, old uranium mine tailings can be reprocessed for further uranium, and phosphate mine tailings can be processed in order to recover both uranium and thorium. Finally, so called “depleted uranium” still contains a significant amount of U-235.
Reprocessing depleted uranium in order to obtain enriched U-235 has a positive EROEI, and would not require new uranium mining. Furthermore, enough thorium is already above ground in the form of mine tailings that no thorium dedicated mining need be undertaken for several thousand years. Thus energy supplies would be assured for a period far longer that the fossil fuel era, and no environmental impact from mining. Further more, the sacrifice of large amounts of bomb grade nuclear materials to start LFTRs would decrease thew likelihood of nuclear war.
A major choice in reactor design, is the need to limit the start charge of each reactor as much as possible, in order to start as many reactors as possible within economic limits. Reactor scientists are aware that the use of graphite or heavy water moderators decreases the amount and concentration of fissionable materials needed to start a chain reaction.
French thinking about LFTR design – they call it the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor – advocates the use of unmoderated LFTRs. This would require a large start-up charge, but the French probably have a large amount of reactor-grade plutonium from their own nuclear waste that they would like to dispose of. For American deployment, as well as deployment in China, India, and the rest of Europe, the need to economize on the amount of fissionable material used in the start up charge, would require a moderated reactor design, even if the use of a graphite moderator leads to design compromises.
The rapid deployment requirement in order to meet projected goals necessitate factory manufacture of LFTRs. This in turn would allow an increase in labor productivity. For example current LWRs require about one man hour of labor for ever 100 Watts of installed generating capacity. A goal for factory-manufactured LFTRs might be one man hour of labor for every thousand watts of installed generating capacity. Such productivity shifts would be possible together with an significant improvement in quality with the extensive use of automated production equipment. The design of a commercial LFTR should be undertaken with rapid, economical, and mistake-free manufacture in mind, rather than production becoming an afterthought.
I have argued then that extremely ambitious goals for the Thorium Grand Plan should be set. These goals should include at least an 80% reduction of fossil fuel use by 2050, simply through the massive deployment of LFTR technology, and the ending of human ener
gy poverty by 2100. While these goals may seem incredible and even insane, they are actually quite plausible within the LFTR paradigm. The shift from fossil fuels to a thorium based energy economy is whole consistent with improved human health, energy independence for many countries including the United States, and with a greatly diminished environmental impact compared to both fossil fuel and renewable generating systems. The decreased environmental impact would include an at least 80% world wide reduction in the use of fossil fuels by 2050. The whole scheme would not be impossibly expensive and would be sustainable for millions of years, if the future human population of the world chose to continue using it. The Thorium Grand Plan would give the entire human population of the earth the option to enjoy a life style than could only be made possible by high energy resources, into the distant future. In the future everyone can have air conditioning without guilt and at a reasonable cost.
When I first began thinking about renewable generation of electricity, the first question I asked was “how are you going to provide electricity when the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing?” I got two different answers in response, The first answer was that we will use the existing generating resources of the grid to bridge any gap when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. The existing resources being “nuclear”, a word that causes most renewable advocates to foam at the mouth whenever it is mentioned. Almost all of the grid resources that renewables advocates would depend on bun fossil fuels. Coal, which every renewables advocate professes to hate, even though some of them take coal money to advocate something called carbon capture and sequestration, is marked by renewables advocates for replacement by renewables. Natural gas, which is after all a carbon based fuel, is almost always treated in the thinking of renewables advocates as an honorary renewables and carbon free resource. Thus we have renewables advocates, in effect, arguing emitting CO2 is OK as long is prevents the use of new reactors in the generation of electricity.
The big message of anti-nuclear fanatics at the moment is the cost of new nuclear facilities. Sovacool & Cooper jump right in:
Nuclear plants are grotesquely capital intensive and expensive at almost all stages of the fuel cycle, especially construction, fuel reprocessing, waste storage, decommissioning, and R&D on new nuclear technology. These exceptionally high costs are connected, in part, to the history of nuclear power itself, as neither the United States nor France—two countries largely responsible for developing nuclear power—pursued nuclear power generators for their cost effectiveness.
Now current reactors produce electricity is at a very low cost. These arguments are usually quite superficial and do not engage in good faith efforts to compare nuclear costs with other with the cost of producing electricity from other post-carbon electrical sources. Indeed advocates of all renewable generation systems almost never discuss the current or future costs of those systems. Indeed they often ignore the current price of renewable facilities, and usually ignore the cost of redundancy and energy storage, as well the cost of building new grid extensions. For example California plans a
$3.3 billion initiative aiming to install 3,000 MW of new grid connected solar capacity over the following decaide
That means that for every 1000 MWs of solar generating capacity added to the California electrical system the state will be spending $1100 million. Renewables advocates often speak of a smart grid, without saying what a smart grid system will cost. While a smart grid will undoubtedly enhance the current grid system, it will not compensate for the limitations of renewables geneerating systems, and impliminting a smart grid system will carry substantial costs.
I have attempted at Nuclear Green to report on current renewables cost, with some systamatic attemptes to estimate the cost of building a reliable base power or a reliable peak power source given the cost of current renewable technology. I have also indicated that future costs are very uncertain because of the sudden and drastic economic crash of 2008, a crash whose magnitude we are just now beginning to appreciate.
Sovaciool and Cooper offer us the following statement on nuclear costs:
New evidence suggests that the estimate of $2000 per installed kW reported by the industry is extremely conservative and woefully out of date. Researchers from the Keystone Center, a nonpartisan think tank, consulted with representatives from twenty-seven nuclear power companies and contractors, and concluded in June 2007 that the cost for building new reactors would be between $3600 and $4000 per installed kW, with interest.167 Projected operating costs for these plants would be remarkably expensive: 30¢/kWh for the first thirteen years until construction costs are paid followed by 18¢/kWh over the remaining life-time of the plant.168 Just a few months later, in October 2007, Moody’s Investor Service projected even higher operating costs, an assessment easily explained by the quickly escalating price of metals, forgings, other materials, and labor needed to construct reactors.169 They estimated total costs for new plants, including interest, at between $5000 and $6000 per installed kW.170 Florida Power & Light informed the Florida Public Service Commission in December 2007 that they estimated the cost for building two new nuclear units at Turkey Point in South Florida to be $8000 per installed kW, or a shocking $24 billion.171 Most recently, in early 2008, Progress Energy pegged its cost estimates for two new units in Florida to be about $14 billion plus an additional $3 billion for transmission and
Note that this discussion notes that overnigh costs in 2007 were estimated to run perhaps $4000 per kw of generating capacity. The assumption is that it would be outrageous to pay so muchy money for electrical generating capacity. But is it? Consider the cost of solar thermal power. In a small solar thermal facility under construction in Spain 2008 was reported by the Guardian to cost 80 Millions Euros, ($108 Million) and to produce a maximim of 20 MWs of power. Now it would take a facility that was 50 times larger to produce the same power output as a typical reactor. How much would it cost to produce reactror size outputs? If we uped the output of our solar facility to 1000 Million watts the resulting building cost would be $5.4 billion. If we tacked on the grid connection cost of $1.1 Billion, our costs now run runs to$6.5 billion. But such a facility would have a capacity factor of around .20 verses a capacity factor of.92 for the reactor. That means that the solar facility produces only 22% of the electricity the reactor does on an annual basis. In order to produce the same amount of electricity we will have to enlarge our solar field to 4 1/2 times times the size of the original facilityfacility and add some form of over night storage for the extra heat. This would cost somewhere between 20 and 25 billion dollars, and does not include the S1.1 billion extra for the grid hookup. Now that is grotesquely capital intensive.
We see that even without inflation that duplicating the power output with some solar thermal technologies will be far more expensive than nuclear. I as of yet have not written off all solar thermal technologies, but some are clearly extremely expensive, and likely to become for so if the 2002 to 2007 inflation in power generating facilities construction costs emerges again in a few years. It should be noted that no solar thermal technology has yet been proven to be cost competitive with nuclear on the basis of actual construction costs for actual rather than theoretical capacity. Nuclear facilities produce over 90% of their rated power over a year while solar facilities produce power, 18% to 22% of their rated power annually. Thus in order to produce as much power as a nuclear facility, the power gathering field has to be enlarged by at least a factor of 4, and expensive heat storage technology has to be added to the solar facility. Thus while solar technology is cheaper by rated capacity, but rated capacity is highly deceptive. Solar facilities only produce at rated capackty for a short period a day, and generate no electricity at all for most of the day. It is not cheaper if measured by actual power output to build solar facilities rather than reactors.
Sovacool & Cooper devote most of their discussion of cost to a discussion of cost over runs in reactor discussion, that is remarkably devoid of insight into the cause of those over runs. Reactor construction costs drop with serial production of reactors. Also the purchaser’s familiarity with reactor construction is important. Finally, a large construction project like building a reactor, requires great managerial skills. In order to control shus a large and complex process, managers themselves need specialized training.
In fact, during the first nuclear era, relatively unskilled managers, were overwealmed with their assignments. No less that four reactor manufacturers vied for sales of evolving reactor designs. In many cases the detailed construction design was incomplete when the reactor construction began, and the design was revised during construction, requiring that completed parts of the facility already completed be torn down and rebuilt. After Three Mile Island, changing safety regulations required major design changes to facilities already under construction. Often this ment that much of the reactor and its facilities had to be torn down and rebuilt for a second time. Prolonging the construction project meant that interest was accruing without any revenue, thus money had to be borrowed to pay interest.
/>There are of course lessons from the experience that could be learned. Sovacool & Cooper who only talke the most superficial of looks learn none. But the French, the Japanese, and the South Koreans did. They used mature reactor designs, which already contained advanced safety features. Construction managers were well trained, and reactor construction projects were completed on time or sooner and at or under budget. thus contrary to Sovacool & Cooper the pattern of cost over runs appears to be be a localized problem in North America.
Is itv possible then for American reactors be built on time and within their budgets? Certainly, but the reactor builders need to larn the lessons. One of the roles of scholars in studying the history of technology is to point out useful lessons to be learned. However, anti-nuclear fanatics like Sovacool & Cooper refuse to even consider the possibility that cost management lessons are available from the history they recite. Hidden in their argument is a profound contempt for history and the possibility that human practices can evolve and change as people face problems and overcome them.
Sovacool & Cooper commit a second intellectual failure, they ignore the construction cost inflation that occurred between 2002 and 2007. During that time, enoumous construction projects in Asia, draind huge amounts of resources from the construction industry, doubling the cost of energy related construction during those years. This effected not only the price of nuclear power plans, but also the price of coal fired power plants, and wind generators as well. Reactor construction cost estimates from 2008 usually assumed a continuation of the similar inflation patterns out to 2012, the earliest date which new reactor construction could begin in the United States. The same inflation pattern that was projected to effect the cost of nuclear construction would have undoubtedly effected the cost of solar and wind projects as well, and at least to the same degree. Thus the cost differential for unit of power produced between nuclear renewables would still hold.
However, the great economic crash of 2008 has already greatly impacted the pace of new construction world wide. The following chart illustrates the dramatic economic drop that occurred during the last year:
It would appear that the crash of 2008 will require sometime before complete recovery commences. It is not clear how long the period of negative or depressed economic growth will last, but one impact of any economic downturn as drastic as the one we just experienced, will be a lowering of the cost of all new electrical generating facilities, including the cost of reactors. I will not fault Sovacool & Cooper for their failure to notice this, since I made assumptions of continued cost inflation until recently.
Sovacool & Cooper point to factors such as “operational learning” which they describe as
a feature not well suited to rapidly changing technology . . .
But it is far from clear how much a factor “operational learning” will be in new reactor costs. Recent changes inb reactor technology are evolutionary rather revolutionary in nature. The Light water Reactor is a mature technnology, that is not rapidly changing. Furthermore, new American reactors will be based on designs that will be built elsewhere first. Thus much of the cost of “operational learning” will be born by the Chinese, the Japanese, the Fins, and the French. Sovacool & Cooper also note
difficulty in standardizing new nuclear units
A problem which I already touched on, but that problem may well be a thing of the past. First Many power producers appear to be focusing on a relatively few designs. The Westinghouse AP-1000 is particularly attractive, and China has already standardized the Ap-1000 as its standard reactor design. Numerous American power producers are considering the AP-1000 and it is also under consideration in England.
Sovacool & Cooper also focus on the cost of fuel reprocessing. The principle economic argument against reprocessing nuclear fuel is that it is cheaper to mine new uranium, enrich it, and run it through a once through cycle, and then designate it nuclear waste. But in terms of power production cost, recycling nuclear fuel would add very little to final electrical costs. Sovacool & Cooper do not understand this. They assert,
Researchers have recently proposed a newer method of reprocessing called uranium extraction plus (“UREX+”), which keeps uranium and plutonium together in the fuel cycle to avoid separating out pure plutonium. This method, however, is both unproven and absurdly expensive. The DOE estimated in 1999 that it would cost $279 billion over a 118-year period to fully implement a reprocessing and recycling program for the existing inventory of U.S. spent fuel relying on UREX+.
Is $279 billion spread over 118 years absurdly expensive? We have an annual expense of 2,364,000,ooo a year which seems like a lot of money, but the total sum is less than what the United States paid for imported oil in 2007. But the energy return on the investment in nuclear fuel recycling would be many times higher than the energy return on dollars spent for imported oil. Further more dollars spent on recycling American nuclear fuel are not spent on imported fuel. Money spent on energy producing industrial process in the United States is money that is not lost to the American economy. Economic multipliers would come into play, further lowering the real economic cost of fuel reprocessing.
Reprocessing is also economically rational because it is cheaper and safer to recycle used nuclear fuel than to treat it as nuclear waste than to place it into long term storage. U-235 and plutonium found in nuclear fuel can used to fuel two types of Generation IV reactors, The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, and the Intrigel Fast Reactor. Contrary to Sovacool and Cooper’s claim that
Generation IV reactors entailed much higher reprocessing and disposal costs compared to conventional recycling and fuel disposal . . .
the LFTR reprocesses fuel internally, and can be used as a means of disposing of nuclear waste from other reactors. In fact, as I note elsewhere on this blog, uranium and plutonium from nuclear waste can be used as a starter charge, for new LFTRs. Used this way, the cost of reprocessing “spent nuclear fuel”, which Sovacool & Cooper also state to be $5 billion a year, would far more than pay for itself in terms of the energy reprocessing would return to the economy. This is one of the many instances in which the Sovacool & Cooper analysis goes completely astray by its failure to put the facts into context.
Sovacool & Cooper and make the cost of long term storage of “nuclear waste” an issue. i personally would regard the disposal of spent reactor fuel a tragedy, since 99% of the potential energy in uranium goes unused in reactors. Sovacool & Cooper, obcessed as they are in demonstrating their case against nuclear power at every turn fail to compare the cost and benefits of reprocessing with the cost and benefits of long term storage.
Sovacool & Cooper raise and misrepresent the question of nuclear decommissioning. First Sovacool & Cooper misinform us on the lifetime of nuclear plants:
Nuclear plants often have an operating
lifetime of forty years.Iin fact it is at least 60 years with another 20 opening up as a possibility. Thus the statement that
In most cases, the decommissioning process takes twice as long as the time the rea
ctor is actually in use
is inaccurate no matter what its source. Their statement that reactor decommissioning
costs anywhere from $300 million to $5.6 billion.
reports fact but ignores that nuclear decommissioning costs are set asside during the 60 to 80 years that a reactor is operated, and thus does is already paid for when decommissioning begins. Paying decommission cost does not pose a serious burden on rate payers, because decommissioning costs are only a very tiny fraction of each cent paid for electricity. Sovacool & Cooper appear to feel uncomfortaboe withtheir cost od decommissioning in the united States, because they includ a discussion of the cost of decommissioning, for British zreactors, and a second discussion of the cost of decommissioning K-25 a World War II era, weapons related industrial facility in Oak Ridge.
Sovacool & Cooper also provide a wholly wrong-headed analysis of nuclear research and development. Thus their assessment of Generation IV nuclear technology simply groups all generation-IV reactor concepts together as a group and characterized them. This is most unfortunate in the case of the LFTR because of its radical difference from other reactor technologies. Thus many things that Sovacool & Cooper say about Generation-IV nuclear technology are not true of LFTR technology. This is especially hard to explain because Ben Sovacool is familiar with my blog, Nuclear Green, and has commented on it on a number of occasions. Ben is also aware of Energy from Thorium, a blog that has what can only be described as a tremendous factual basis. Aside from category errors, Sovacool & Cooper offer the argument that since Generation-IV reactors need to be researched before they are built, they should not be researched. Is there an explanation for this circular conclusion? Yes, it is clear that Sovacool & Cooper regard any reactor belonging to the generation IV reactor class as bad, bad, bad.
Finally we have the matter of subsidies. First I should note a distinction between the civilian nuclear industry and the civilian nuclear power industry. The civilian nuclear industry refers to all research conducted on topics deemed to be of use to civilians. This might include everything form the peaceful uses of nuclear explosions, to the use of radioisotopes in medicine, the use of radiation to trigger genetic mutations in plants, the study of Carbon-14 in the atmosphere, and many other research issues not directly bearing on nuclear power. Secondly, it should be observed that many of the so-called civilian research projects had secret military purposes. The distinction between civilian and military research was nearly as hard and fast as it would appear. For example the first civilian nuclear power plant, the Shippingport Reactor, was actually a naval reactor. During its history the Navy used the Shippingport reactor for experiments. The Navy exercised a great deal of control over the USAEC during the 1950′s, 60′s and 70′s and many of what might appear to be civilian research decisions were actually made for military purposes. Thus for example the decision to research the liquid-metal fast breeder reactor (LMFBR) rather than the safer and largely waste-free molten-salt reactor, appears to have been made with an eye to the production of plutonium for military purposes. Plutonium is a relatively unsatisfactory thermal reactor fuel, but Pu-239 is a preferred weapons material.
Direct research in support of the civilian power industry has been quite small. The Federal government spent about 5.8 billion dollars developing the civilian version of the light water reactor. This was the largest single subsidy which it provided the civilian nuclear power industry. A second significant subsidy will come into force during the next decade when the Federal government is committed to co-sign loans worth $18B for the nuclear power industry. It is frequently argued that the Price-Anderson Act is a subsidy to the nuclear power industry. But in fact the the Price-Anderson Act indemnifies the nuclear industry for at least $10B in the event of a nuclear accident, and leaves open the possibility of an even higher bill to reactor owners, if the total recovery costs exceeds $10B.
Unlike the renewables, the nuclear power industry does not get any tax breaks on its power production. Nor does federal government pay part of the capital costs of nuclear projects. Where then is the huge subsidy to the nuclear power industry that Sovacool & Cooper go on and on about? The huge nuclear subsidy is an urban myth perpetuated by anti nuclear fanatics. The truth is that high priced, low performance renewables can’t cut it in the open market where nuclear is doing just fine. Without their subsidies renewable owners would simply fold their tents and slip into the night.
I have followed Ben Sovacool’s escapades as an anti-nuclear scholar and/or pseudo-scholar for sometime, and recently noted an improvement in his scholarly discipline in a review on one of his recent papers. But alas the improvement may turn out to be a fluke. David Sella-Villa, the Editor-in-Chief of the William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, has kindly provided me with a copy of Sovacool’s most recent paper, “Nuclear Nonsense: Why Nuclear Power Is No Answer to Climate Change and the World’s Post-Kyoto Energy Challenges,” which Sovacool coauthored with Chris Cooper. The paper is long, but unfortunately contains numerous flaws that mare its conclusions. My usual approach in reviewing long books or long papers is to focus on a section or sections that contain material that I am most familiar with and examine how well the author or authors treated their subject. I also attend to rhetorical strategies including the selection and use of authority, and the selection of information.
Since I am familiar with some basic concept of nuclear safety I will first review the Sovacool & Cooper account of nuclear safety. i first searched the Sovacool & Cooper text for indications that they understood three basic nuclear safety concepts: Safety culture, defense in depth and passive safety. Neither term appears in their 119 page paper which devotes. Indeed most of the 11 page discussion of nuclear safety is devoted to accounts of two major nuclear accidents, the 1986 Chernobyl accident and the 1979 Three Mile Island. A final subsection on on Nuclear safety is titled, “Newer Reactors are the Riskiest”. I will return to this astonishing assertion shortly. First I should note a difference between the treatment of the difference between the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents in nuclear safety literature, and the Sovacool & Cooper treatment of the accidents. In nuclear safety literature, for example the Presidential Report on the Three Mile Island accident, contributing factors are noted, and mitigation approaches are suggested. In the case of Chernobyl, nuclear safety literature is harshly critical of Soviet Reactor design, and the lack of safety culture in the design and operation of Soviet reactors. Among problems noted in RBMK reactor design was a positive coefficient of reactivity, that it the tendency of the nuclear process to accelerate with rising reactor heat. Alvin Weinberg reported that danger of a positive coefficient of reactivity in similar reactors was known to the first generation of American reactor designers. The American NRC would not certify a civilian power with a positive coefficient of reactivity. A negative coefficient of reactivity is considered a highly desirable nuclear safety characteristic, because it tends to shut down reactors as they start to overheat without operator intervention. American Light Water Reactors are characterized by their negative coefficient of reactivity.
The RBMK lacked the outer defensive barriers that characterized Western Light Water Reactor. In the Chernobyl accident. Thus even in the unlikely event that a LWR’s massive pressure vessel were destroyed by a steam of hydrogen explosion, an even more massive containment dome still blocked the release of radioactive fission products. In contrast once the RBMK’s positive coefficient of reactivity lead the reactor’s power production top run away and it began to overheat a rapid build up of steam pressure inside the reactor coolant system lead to a steam explosion. This explosion blew the top off the reactor which meant that all barriers to to the release of of radioactive fission products was removed. In RBMK lacked the outer defensive barriers that characterized Western Light Water Reactor.
Soviet reactor culture tended to disregard nuclear safety to a truly astonishing extent. Thus the RBMK reactor control design allowed operators to override safety features despite the evidence from the Three Mile Accident that operator error was a major factor in that accident. The choice of the Chernobyl operators to override safety controls was also a reflection of the absence of safety cultures. it appears that the reactor operators were not fully aware of the dangers posed by the RBMKs’ design flaws, and were not aware of the possible consequences of operating the reactor while disregarding its safety limits.
It is no wonder that subsequent reviews of the safety of Soviet RBMKs concluded that they were “accidents waiting to happen”
In contrast, the system of nuclear safety barriers in place in the Three Mile Island reactor prevented the escape of most of the radioactive fission products contained in the reactor. The fission products that did escape were biologically inactive gases, that were quickly diluted to the atmosphere and appeared to have dissipated without any detectable long term effects on the health of people who lived in the Three Mile Island area. Numerous safety flaws, and lax safety practices contributed to the the TMI accident, and any account of nuclear safety ought to note how lessons learned from Three Mile Island effected reactor design, NRC regulation of safety practices, and the actual safety culture of reactor operators.
Sovacool & Cooper fail to take any notice of safety lessons that might be learned from the two major accidents they mentioned, or the effect of those accidents on reactor design and safety practices. The the function of the Sovacool & Cooper account of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl seems to be as material evidence in an argument that reactors break, not to provide insight into nuclear safety, its evolution and challenges. A further example of the Sovacool & Cooper reactors break approach is the long list of reactor accidents appended to the Sovacool & Cooper article. While I believe that that nuclear safety requires a careful and detailed study of reactor accidents Sovacool & Cooper simply list accidents without providing the detailed information that might give insight into accident causes, thus rendering their list useless as a source of information that would help improve nuclear safety.
Further issues emerge about data set used to compile the accident list. The listing of the Chernobyl accident indicates that there were 4056 dearths associated with the accident, but all accounts report about 57 deaths. Where did the extra 4000 deaths come from? After the accident, UNSCEAR reported that up to 4,000 additional of thyroid cancer might have been by radiation exposures associated with the accident. Thyroid cancer can be successfully treated in most treatment, with a 97% cure rate in children diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Thus Sovacool & Cooper appear to have made a very large and obvious error in reporting the fatalities of the Chernobyl accident, or to have deliberately padded their data.
A further flaw in the list would be the failure to report Soviet reactor accidents. For example, it is known that there were a large number of Soviet submarine reactor accidents. A comparison of the safety cultures of the Soviet Navy and the American Navies might yield interesting data if linked to accident histories. But tis is impossible of Soviet Naval reactor acciden
ts are ignored.
This nor brings us to the most astonishing aspect of the Sovacool & Cooper account of nuclear safety, their assertion that
Newer Reactors are the Riskiest.
Unfortunately, safety risks such as those at Chernobyl and Three
Mile Island are only amplified with new generations of nuclear systems.
This is the topic sentence of a paragraph that continues:
Nuclear engineer David Lochbaum has noted that almost all serious nu- clear accidents occurred with recent technology, making newer systems the riskiest.500 In 1959, the Sodium Research Experiment reactor in California experienced a partial meltdown fourteen months after opening.501 In 1961, the Sl-1 Reactor in Idaho was slightly more than two years old before a fatal accident killed everyone at the site.502 The Fermi Unit 1 reactor began commercial operation in August 1966, but had a partial meltdown only two months after opening.503 The St. Laurent des Eaux A1 Reactor in France started in June 1969, but an online refueling machine malfunctioned and melted 400 pounds of fuel four months later.504 The Browns Ferry Unit 1 reactor in Alabama began commercial operation in August 1974 but experienced a fire severely damaging control equipment six months later.505 Three Mile Island Unit 2 began commercial operation in December 1978 but had a partial meltdown three months after it started.506 Chernobyl Unit 4 started up in August 1984, and suffered the worst nuclear disaster in history on April 26, 1986 before the two-year anniversary of its operation.507
Thus Sovacool & Cooper attempt to prove the risk of post-Chernobyl reactors by citing the Chernobyl and pre-Chernobyl accidents. This is a notable lapse of logic, that might be described as down right crazy.
The rest of the argument shifts rather aimlessly between discussing rather vague dangers associated with clustering reactors on a limited number of sites. Sovacool & Cooper appear to believe that nuclear accidents can be contagious, jumping from reactor to reactor on a single site. They worry about all Generation IV technology because one type of Generation IV reactor uses liquid sodium as coolant. They worry about future qualified reactor staff persons, failing to note that at least 25 American Universities and Colleges have degree programs that would qualify graduates to serve as reactor operators, and the United States Navy trains a large number of officers and enlisted personnel in reactor operations every year. Even if these problematic facts were true, how much support do the lend to the assertion that “newer reactors are riskier?” The answer is absolutely none, The passive safety features of Generation III+ reactors make them almost meltdown proof even were they to be staffed by poorly trained operators.
Thus the Sovacool & Cooper discussion of nuclear safety, far from offering us insights into nuclear safety issues, simply resort to an absurdly illogical parody of scholarship. They indeed offer us nuclear nonsense on nuclear safety.
The future inflation of construction costs would appear, at the moment seem to be impossible to project. First the great housing crash of 2008 may not be over yet. Millions of American home owners owe more on their homes than can be recovered by the sale of the homes. As unemployment grows, and home owners will be unable to make payments on their mortgages. With mortgage default, the home’s ownership passes back to banks that will be unable to recover mortgage costs, and indeed will have difficulty finding buyers. With the contraction of home sales, more homes will go on the rental market. This will deflate rental cost. As rental costs go down people who mortgages are “under water” may simply walk away from high mortgage homes and move to lower-cost rental homes. Thus there is significant potential down side leverage in the housing economy.
A continued housing collapse would in turn would continue to put pressure on the banking sector of the national and international economies, and thus further bank bailouts may be needed. The insolvency of banks would make obtaining credit under any circumstances difficult if not impossible. And the unavailability of credit would have a depressing effect on both the American and the world economy.
A second long term impact on the economy will come from the increase of savings. Wage earners have at the moment taken a terrific hit to their retirement savings. There will be no easy recovery from this hit. In addition to shortfalls for retirement plans, we can project a long term greater insecurity about asset appreciation. Both of these factors point to a higher savings rate, with more saving going into “safe” investments. More savings means less consumption. Less consumption means less economic growth or an economic contraction.
Thirdly, governments worldwide have created a great deal of money to deal with the economic crisis of 2008. Economists note that unless that money supply can be contracted during a recovery, the result will be significant inflation. Given these factors we may be facing stagflation, or an outright prolonged depression at worst.
Given the unpredictable economic outcome for the great crash of 2008, it is simply impossible to project future costs on new power generation projects. At the moment inflationary pressures on construction costs have eased. The price of raw materials for power plant production – steel, cement, copper, etc. – dropped substantially in 2008. Many future construction plans are being set aside, and with the lowering of construction demand labor costs will go down as well. This all would suggest a deflation in construction costs for new power generation facilities, even in the face of rising overall inflation. Thus the most likely outcome for the cost of nuclear power will be lower rather than higher construction costs.
In addition, the probable increase in the savings rate may mean that more money is available for investment in new power facilities. It is unlikely that the true ratio between the cost of base power and power on demand between nuclear and renewables is unlikely to change. At present and for the foreseeable future nuclear power will offer lower cost base power and power on demand than renewables can.