Q&A on Nuclear Power

Stephen Frantz

Stephen Frantz, Worked in nuclear energy for a few decades, with the US Navy, Westinghouse, Independent Consultant, and a f…

The governments in question are yielding to public opinion. Arguably, that is what governments are supposed to do. But if a country shuts down existing nuclear power plants and shifts to fossil fuels, they are doing their constituents a disservice.

After a nuclear power plant has been built, the expensive part is over. Fuel and operation costs are much lower for nuclear compared to fossil fuel, even including waste disposal. As far as pollution and greenhouse gasses, shutting down an operating nuclear plant and replacing the power with fossil fuels is a travesty. Remember that fossil plants handle much of their waste simply by discharging it into the atmosphere at no cost; nuclear plants store their waste to dispose of it safely. Disposal of spent fuel is a political issue; the science is settled. Besides, if you already have been operating a nuclear power plant then you have to dispose of the fuel. Shutting down the plant doesn’t make that problem go way, and making more spent fuel doesn’t make the problem worse; the difference in volume is insignificant.

The comparison of public health effects and death toll of nuclear vs. fossil fuels shows that nuclear is thousands of times safer, even including catastrophic disasters.

Michael McClennen
Michael McClennen, Scientist and science enthusiast

Because nuclear power plants are a failed technology. (I’m sure I’m going to get a lot of criticism in the comments for stating this.)

Agreed, they are one of the cleanest power generation technologies we have at this point in time. Agreed, they provide a steady source of baseline power that is difficult to replace. However:

  • They are enormously costly to build. A nuclear plant requires the most up-front capital investment of any power generation technology in common use.
  • They are ridiculously complicated, finicky, and difficult to keep running safely. By comparison, wind turbines, solar panels, and gas-fired plants are simple and easy to maintain.
  • Because of the enormous expense, the temptation for some of the thousands of different contractors to cut corners when building their part of the facility is (apparently) irresistible. To my knowledge, there is not a single nuclear power plant anywhere in the world that doesn’t have multiple uncorrected safety violations.
  • They are mostly safe, but when they go wrong they go wrong in a big way.
  • They generate tons of radioactive waste, and not a single country in the world has come up with a long-term solution for how to store this safely for the thousands of years it will take to decay.

As of the current year (2017), the big banks, development agencies, and other groups with money to invest in power generation have decided not to invest it in nuclear power. This is not my opinion, it is a stone cold fact. They have realized that they will get a much better ROI by building solar panels or wind turbines, and a somewhat better ROI by building gas-fired power plants.

I predict that only a handful of new nuclear plants will ever be built using anything remotely like the current designs. The existing ones will keep on operating (for the most part) until the point at which they need extensive (and expensive) maintenance, and then will be shut down one by one. Whether or not this is a good idea, it is what is going to happen.

And we are going to be fine. It turns out that power grids can tolerate a much higher percentage of intermittent power from wind turbines and solar farms than the naysayers predicted (up to 70% in many cases) and advances in battery technology and other kinds of high-capacity short-term storage will make up much of the remaining gap.

If somebody comes up with a substantially simpler and cheaper design for nuclear power, and is able to demonstrate that it can work in the real world then things may change. But people have been promising this for the past 30 years and haven’t delivered. Westinghouse bet their company on this promise, and they went bankrupt this year. I’m not holding my breath.

Answered by Richard @ Flexible Reality
Perhaps it’s due to the five nuclear buzzword combinations: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukuyama vs Clean Coal where the politicians and citizens fear the assumed ravages of nuclear accidents vs an assumed long-term adaptability requirement for natural gas as the energy power-plant fuel of choice. They fail to understand that 99% of the nuclear waste generated annually comes from sources other than power-plants, or even that the damage at each of the nuclear sites named did not arise from a flaw in the technology, only it’s implementation, location, monitoring, and control. The NRC, IAEA and others in Ukraine and Japan issued warnings to their respective agencies that problems within their facilities existed; but were routinely ignored. No energy source is free from risks, including wind, tidal, and solar; but on balance nuclear has proven itself capable of filling a huge need with manageable risks.
In addition, the modern U.S. Navy would be unthinkable without nuclear energy:

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