How We Can Get Clean Energy—Is Nuclear Power Safe?

There are promising alternatives to battery storage that address the problem of intermittency.

Nuclear currently provides 20% of power in the U.S. vs. 60% from fossil fuels, so (back of the envelope) we’d need to construct about 200 nuclear reactors (there are currently 94) of equivalent capacity. However, we also need to factor in the age of the current nuclear fleet:

The average age of American power plants, which are licensed to run for 40 years, is 39; in the last decade, at least five have been retired early, largely because maintenance costs and cheaper sources of power made them too expensive to operate.

The most recent closure came just last week, on April 30, when the second of two reactors was shut down at the Indian Point power plant, on the Hudson River north of New York City. Until a few years ago, those reactors had supplied a quarter of the city’s power. Nationwide, the EIA predicts that nuclear power generation will decline 17 percent between 2018 and 2025.

While environmental opposition may have been the primary force hindering nuclear development in the 1980s and 90s, now the biggest challenge may be costs. Few nuclear plants have been built in the U.S. recently because they are very expensive to build here, which makes the price of their energy high.

One hopes that this is an outlier, but recent experience does not inspire confidence:

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Or cost overruns caused by corruption?

A friend of mine from high school became a boilermaker (someone trained and certified in water container / stainless steel welding). He was hired to work on the WPPSS (also called Whoops!) nuclear reactors in Washington state back in the late 70’s - early 80’s.

He worked there for several years, made a boat-load of money. He’d come back to Seattle on weekends, we’d go out for beers, and he’d laughingly describe what a clown show it was. He and his fellow welders would build out these very complex cooling pipeline structures, inspectors would come in accompanied by Boilermakers Union officials, condemn the work, and the workers would tear it out and start over. Free money.

This happened several times. Eventually WPPSS defaulted in the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history.


You don’t measure energy storage in megawatts, you measure it in megawatt-hours. Two entirely different things. Stating energy storage in megawatts is like stating the gas tank capacity of your car in horsepower.

Pumped storage: Here is a real-life example of a major pumped storage plant, this one in Linthal, Switzerland. It can store 34 GWh of energy; about a day and a half output from a modest-sized power plant.

Construction of such a plant is a very large effort, the number of appropriate sites is limited, and every single such project will face major delays driven by environmental regulations and litigation. See, for example, Storm King.


Nuclear power is unsafe in South Africa right now because operators are being chosen on skin colour and not on aptitude.

We have had a few events like “dropping a nut” etc.

This is a huge base-level nuclear reactor tho.

The future is small scale local reactors. The question is whether worst-case is worthwhile for the local community.

E=m^2 is pretty hard to contain in worst case. Like 100 years abandoned or even 5, 10 years.

It’s always about people. Western culture is able to safely operate nukes. African and some Asian cultures are not.

Western society is culturally able. Don’t make global assumptions.

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All useful scale pumped storage requires a large dam, which is hugely ecologically invasive.

Let’s assume we can supply this [all human energy needs] globally with solar and wind energy.

Have you @David_Foster worked out how much ecological devastation the night-time energy demand would wreak? For pumped storage.

Large dams are always in ecologically important biomes - old river valleys.

Then global shipment by sea cannot benefit from pumped storage. Nor can air freight.

I will suspect that 90% of trade is sea-bound by weight.

How do we feed the world without container ships running cheaply in the global market and leaking nukes into the sea?

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Yes, but not toxic waste that continues to increase its toxicity over time. I’m a fan of nuclear but be fair.

What are the useful metrics for waste matter?

Awesome, always wondered about that.

Nonsense. Terminal velocity of a large heavy object in water is not enough for deep burial. The canisters will be lying on the bottom sea bed with a few chips broken off due to impact with reefs. That’s still ok tho, as long as the natural nuclear decay of each canister doesn’t destroy humanity or even the local subterranean ecosystem.

I’d find your own argument far more plausible if you could provide some basic back-of-the-envelope calculations.

For example global power demand is X w/h. With it all supplied by nukes this would produce steady state of Y tons of nuclear waste. Then for the nuclear waste which has long-term decay, like 100,000 years, can you argue that dumping in the ocean locally or globally does not increase the ambient radiation.

Show me the maths. Don’t get all emotional or political in your argument.

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Sorta like AGW and The Vaccine, no? Yes, yes, yes, there are all sorts of wicked capitalists (or communists, take your pick) hiding under the bed and we can’t trust them and they lie and they are plotting to take over the world. Why should today be different? But warts and all, nukes have been a complete success in, say, France, and yes it’s a complicated technology and there has been a learning curve, but we really are getting better. They say the next generation will be modular. Nope, the monkeys always have and always will tinker with things at and beyond the level of their competence but they’ve learned to do a whole lot of mischief that way. Besides, windmills are ugly.

If you want to know what’s really going on anywhere, you shouldn’t hire consultants, you should just show up on the site, tell the guys that you’d like to buy them a beer after work, then get them to inform you straight from the horse’s mouth.

Easy enough to run an experiment tho isn’t it? I myself would bet a beer that a beautifully streamlined dolphin-shaped ‘bomb’ of a few hundred tonnes would hit the bottom fast enough to bury itself pretty deep. Let’s try it and see.


“All of the discussions surrounding nuclear power may have recently become moot. Recently, a UK company called First Light Fusion has developed a method of fusion which has incredible potential for developing commercially viable fusion.”

I’m not a fan of the ‘let’s wait for fusion’ argument. First of all, because controlled fusion requires breakthroughs in theory, we still have no real idea how long this will take. But the real problem is that Greens will not accept any technology that replaces fossil fuel without requiring a major cut in living standards. Their argument is basically religious, and their enemy is human prosperity itself. So we can be sure that as soon as fusion is achieved, they will bring in their lawyers with a whole new set of imagined arguments against it.


What? Not even close, dude. The correct logic is this: you need to generate electricity. You have different possible methods for doing so, one of which doesn’t hurt anyone on a day to day basis, but may hurt lots of people in the event of a catastrophic failure, and another which doesn’t pose any risk of catastrophic failure but which we know hurts people a little bit every day, to the point that some of them die. What we have to do is estimate the risk of catastrophic failure for the first option and compare to the known harm done by the second option and make a rational choice between the two. You can argue the author is wrong in his assessment of option 1 or option 2, but you seem not to have correctly interpreted the author’s point in the first place.


I largely agree- however, if this process does turn out to be commercially viable, it’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. I have the same attitude to geothermal- if those graphene cables really do manage to deliver a step change in the potential for geothermal, then why not exploit it?

Nor are the so-called environmentalists.
Why wait for fusion when you can utterly destroy environment with windmills and solar panels in the meantime?
Why destroy the environment with windmills and solar panels?
Well because of economic growth and development of course. Did we ever destroy the environment for any other reason?

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Their ugliness is the least of their problem. They suck up the most valuable resource on this planet: land.
Problems are already starting, Belgium is presently suing France over installment of windmills in the sea too close to Belgium waters.
Some of the main environmental problems today are habitat loss for the species, lack of space for agricultural development and lack of space for urban development, and in the midst of this space crisis, the “solution” proposed is an inefficient and unreliable energy source that is notorious for being space hungry. How efin stupid is that?


Zubrin is a pure one-eyed nuke spruik Shellenberger lookalike.

The guy is a polemicist who comes out of the free market thinktankery movement that has been long holding up and obfuscating climate change action.

His 2011 book, ’ Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (which was his answer to Oreskes and Conway’s 2010 devastating expose, ‘The Merchants of Doubt’) gives a nice demo of his penchant for ideological hype.

I found it really hard going finding any of his ‘radical environementalist’ targets who bothered to reply. All 8 pages of google references were promo praise blurb, as you would expect from a tome where most (but not all) that was holding it up was the PR campaign.

Now that fossil fuel fired anthropogenic climate change denial is a lost cause, and governments of all descriptions and the big money is heading in the opposite direction, Nukes are the leading contenders for the job of at least rhetorically slowing down the renewables+storage revolution, where cost is the main driver; something that nukes have a problem with, until they can demonstrate new technology that is demonstrably cheaper still and can be delivered in a timely fashion (climate change and renewables deployment don’t wait for newly maturing nuke tech deployment in the 2030s) which will be tough, because pricewise, renewables are creaming the opposition right now…and keep promising ever more rapid more-of-the-same.

For a slightly less partisan and more balanced take on nukes, Scientific American is not a bad start…if one is interested in something other than sectional interest advocacy and lobbying.

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You obviously haven’t spent much time in water, @RayAndrews. Terminal velocity in water is very low. Like 5m/s or 18km/hr or 10mph.

Maximum with well-turned and shaped object.

This is like dropping the same object from hand in air onto sand. Gravity is 8m/s^2

You can do the same experiment in your kids sand box. Drop your best shaped projectile from your waist level and see how deep it gets into the sand box.

Anything dropped in water will end up on the surface. You are welcome to play the experiment.

As I said before, this is not necessarily bad. The local heat will certainly cause strange life to flourish. Life forms are very adaptable.

Do you have a reference for that claim @Schopenhauer ?

Submarines run on nukes very comfortably.

Yes, construction of a nuke plant is similar, engineering wise to construction of a base-power coal plant.

The main problem with nukes is that the greenies make it far too expensive to build. They clearly prefer coal and fast gas plants for baseline energy supply.

This goes back to another article. Arts students have no understanding of how their world actually works. They drive their cars to climate protests, cos they are doing good.



Firstly earth-normal gravity is 9.8m/s^2.

A rough calculation (using Stokes of course and ignoring Reynolds number since laminar flow will certainly be achievable):

  • Density of vitrified HLNW = ca. 2500 kg/m^3.
  • Mass of projectile is obviously arbitrary will be subject to engineering objectives, but let’s say 100,000 kg after subtracting the buoyancy of the projectile.
  • Earth-normal gravity: 9.8m/s^2
  • Density of water, let’s keep it simple and use 1000kg/m^3.
  • Coefficient of drag: let’s use .05, easily achievable and typical of an airfoil.
  • Cross section: given density and mass above, we get about 40m^3 for our projectile, ignoring the stainless steel containment. Being lazy lets give it a cross section of 1m^2 – this being a box 1m * 1m * 40m. Obviously when the projectile is streamlined it will be a bit longer, say 60m, but that doesn’t matter for the purposes of this calculation.

You can apply the above to the terminal velocity equation yourself and I trust you will compute:

197m/s or 709 km/h.

Mind, at that impact velocity our projectile is likely to shatter unless the mud at the bottom of yer basic ocean is very soft and very deep, so if anything we’ll have to add drag to our projectile, probably by making it fatter and shorter. Or perhaps lower mass will be used, perhaps 10 tonne projectiles – this would aid in heat dissipation.

Note that human freedivers – not much denser than the ocean itself – routinely reach a terminal velocity of over 1m/s at the bottom of a dive – and I don’t need to tell you that humans don’t have very good Cd’s.



BTW, in practice I expect that the actual waste cylinder would be of a more normal ‘barrel’ shape, or some kind of cylindrical rod, and that sacrificial fairings would be used to streamline the projectile until impact with the bottom.

Oh, and I’ve spent a great deal of time in the water, once 14 hours at a stretch and that was before transitioning to a dolphin.


Of course, the USSR built Graphite moderated reactors (such as Chernobyl). However, so did (at least) the US (Columbia, SC) and the UK (Windscale). The UK reactor even caught fire and burned for a while (as did the Soviet reactor).

I believe the Washington state plutonium production reactors were water cooled graphite as well. The British piles were also for plutonium production, but air cooled, so at least there were no explosions. They spent a few days trying to put the graphite fire out, until someone finally had the idea to turn off the air blowers feeding the fire.

I don’t thing the US has ever built a graphite pile for commercial power production. All the plutonium producers were designed to push fuel through continuously to avoid upconverting P239 into P240, which is not a good bomb material. Graphite piles are slow to respond, hard to drive, not good characteristics for a civilian power reactor.

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But terminal velocity is pretty much fixed for streamlined objects.

On the other hand imagine a (non-explosive) missile that were capable of penetrating 20m of solid rock.

Hint to you @RayAndrews, the ocean bottom is hard rock with some sand drift and life forms on top.

Would you expect a fired radioactive capsule capable of meaningful penetration not to break up on impact? At least a little?

Or at least to not expose all of the innards of the capsule?

Gedanken experiments are good for the soul. Or even the sole.

Dependent on other variables. [Apology, I loved your analysis but this is where I think it broke down.]

Sorry, it’s hidden.


How Fast Can a Submarine Go?

This is classified as well. However, U.S. nuclear-powered submarines can go faster than 23 miles per hour, which is 37 kilometers per hour or 20 knots (nautical miles per hour) underwater."

Just not possible in practice. Or in (correct) theory.