The Nuclear Debate creeps back into motion

For most of my life, there’s been a very simple calculus to memorize with regard to nuclear energy production:

Nuclear Energy = Nukes = Bad. Very Bad.

Every environmentalist I’ve ever run into over the past 3 decades may as well have had this equation tattooed onto their foreheads and they were vehement in their advocacy of the notion. Ironically, it’s the climate change debate that’s managed to bring nuclear energy into a much kinder light even producing, as Glenn Reynolds points out, dyed-in-the-wool nuke protesters that are suggesting nukes as the way to go. Reynolds has been one of several highly educated folks who are skeptical of the anthropogenic global warming hysteria (as am I) but he’s been equally adamant that there are excellent reasons to stop burning fossil fuels that have nothing to do with climate change. In this, I also agree.

There are some interesting points about nuclear energy in the United States that the no-nukes crowd either doesn’t know or hasn’t been in a hurry to tell you about. Quick – how many people in the United States have been killed as a result of direct harm from nuclear power?

That’d be zero. As in: none. Three-mile Island is the 1 incident on US soil and years of testing have shown that literally no one’s health was impacted in any measurable way. Want to go world-wide? The only other major incident was Chernobyl and we’ve seen about 60 deaths related to the direct release of radiation in that case. Almost all of those were in the emergency responders who were fighting the nuclear fire. Not good, to say the least, but hardly the disaster it’s been painted to be.

Nuclear energy production gives off a carbon emission level about that of wind power and the energy production is orders of magnitude higher. Here’s an interesting statistic from the linked story for you to consider. An American getting all of his electricity from coal-fired plants for his entire lifetime would garner a share of the solid waste produced in that power generation that would weigh 68 tons. That load would require six 12-ton rail cars to cart away. The total carbon dioxide emissions for that individual would be 77 tons, requiring almost 6 1/2 more cars, assuming you could gather it together to be moved away. That’s the share of the waste borne by a single person.

A family of four in France – under their currently operating fuel reprocessing procedures – would produce enough waste to fill a coffee cup in the same period of time. Read that again – a full family of 4 will generate less waste material in the production of their energy than that 1-pint bottle of water you likely had sitting next you at the office over their entire lives. That’s 0.00000046% of the single American’s waste load.

There are certainly issues to be dealt with but we need to have a clear, rational discussion of the realities of nuclear power, free from the hysteria and doom-mongering that has plagued it up to now. I’m looking forward to it.

(Welcome Punditeers! Feels like I’ve won the Nobel, getting a link from Instapundit!)



  1. One of the things people will need for a clear and rational discussion of nuclear is an understanding of how these plants actually work in the real world – the people, politics and technology. Most of those discussing the issue are either spokesman, executives or outsiders. It’s a lot different at the worker bee level (my spot) – both good and bad. I’ve tried to write a popular portrayal of nuclear in an enjoyable context. See for “Rad Dececision: A Novel of Nuclear Power”. There’s no cost to readers. Also in paperback at online retailers.

  2. I agree that nuclear power ought to be carefully considered. I believe that the main issue on politicians’ minds,are:

    – the obvious political sensitivity
    – the vulnerability of nuclear power to terrorism – and the devastating target they might make
    – the NIMBY attitude of anyone who has to consider where the waste gets dumped, however little it is, it’s pretty ferocious IF failure occurs or if it’s let loose.
    – the massive half-life of nuclear waste… i.e. nobody may have died yet, but there’s going to be plenty more years that it’s around somewhere in storage for something to go wrong.

    Having said all that, I think once you remove the above risks (most importantly where to put the waste) it is one of the better forms of power.
    And I am amazed that serious investigation into sending nuclear waste off into the sun hasn’t been considered. The explosion, I’m told, would be barely noticeable, the increase in radiation from that explosion that would reach Earth would be negligable if anything at all.

    For the amount of power that nuclear energy can provide, surely that sort of thing is financially feasible? Has anyone here done the maths?

    And what about decommissioning tonnes of nuclear weapons to make power – can that be done? What a turnaround that might be.

  3. The expression that nukes are bad seems to be an oversimplification of nukes, along with other technologies. When the Curies discovered radioactivity, they added to the substance of the universe as it were. Nothing in and of itself is good or bad, rather, its how its used.

  4. imaginaryband, you’re trying at least.
    If you reprocess/recycle the fuel like the French do you eliminate 99.99% of the waste and also get rid of the long lived isotopes by reusing them in the next batch of reactor fuel. I believe the left over none usable waste will have 7 half lives in 100-200 years the is no need to drop the waste into the sun. People can easily build structures to handle that little waste for for that length of time heck there are house older than 200 years old. The reason US nuclear waste lasts 10,000’s of years is because of a political decision to not recycle/reprocess the fuel. BTW nuclear weapons can be diluted down to make excellent reactor fuel.

  5. Plutonium rods have a half life (breaking down period) of 21,000 years…nice to be able to recycle them yes…though it works nicely for many areas in the world…more proliferation maybe no ….shoot it at the sun maybe yes….still, salient…what about redefining the mission…labs…fusion is in the very near future…and there’s been considerable progress…funding though is being taken away because these labs failed to redefine their mission statements in post cold war reality…go figure?…

  6. frodo441
    Fusion maybe Bussard’s Inertial Electrostatic Fusion may pan out. He had a Navy research contract for over 10 year and the project looks close to success plus just got renewed on the negative Bussard just died and someone else from his lab will have to take over the project and finish it.
    But until fusion is proven however go with recycling/ reprocessing fuel rods. France and Japan have done it without any proliferation failures. If your really paranoid of proliferation Thorium can be used instead of Uranium to power fission reactors the plutonium produced thus is contaminate with too much of the wrong plutonium isotopes making it much too hot to use in weapons. The thorium fuel cycle is prove only the engineering needs to be finished.

  7. Actually, Indian Point Unit 1, which was built in the late 50s-early 60s and mothballed in 1974, was originally designed as a Thorium converter reactor. It was never operated that way, due to concerns over shipping the spent fuel.

    The nuclear side of Unit 1 is still sitting here, perfectly intact, and is a marvel of 1950s engineering. A real time capsule.

  8. Chernobyl had some 100 deaths immediately from the accident, and there were some 2000-4000 cases of cancer directly attributable to the accident because of I-131, the most deadly isotope in any nuclear accident because of its high radioactivity, environmental mobility, and its high biouptake by the thyroid, especially in the case of an (like in the city of Pripyat) iodine deficient population. However 1-131 has a half life of only eight days and is entirly decayed after only a year. Thyroid cancer is notable as having one of the highest survival rates of most cancers as well.

    The long lived radioisotopes around the area, such as Sr-90 and Cs-137 have the properties of being rather deadly if they do get into the body but aren’t observed to have much environmental mobility or high biouptake. The WHO report on chernobyl confirms this and even the TORCH report at the behest of the Green party in Germany had to rely on shaky figures and properties such as ‘depression’ to contribute to excess death toll from the disaster.

    A fascinating book on the ecology of the ‘poisoned’ exclusion zone is Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl by Mary Mycio if you’re interested…

  9. Whilst Chernobyl was a public health disaster, what is more important to understand is that it simply has no relevance to discussion of nuclear energy in the world today.

    Nobody in the world, outside the Soviet Union during the cold war, has ever built reactors with a positive void coefficient, with no containment vessel, and all the other grave design failings associated with the RBMK.

    The concerns associated with graphite reactors with positive void coefficients under Xenon-precluded startup conditions were completely understood in the US by nuclear physicists at the Hanford site – 30 years before Chernobyl occured.

  10. About the only other thing I can ask is…Must a nuclear power plant be a “Breeder” reactor.I wouldn’t think so.Certainly 1 breeder can supply all the material for a number of reactors.

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