Why Nuclear Power is not an alternative to fossil fuels

[ Economic reasons are the main hurdle to new nuclear plants now, with capital costs so high it’s almost impossible to get a loan, especially when natural gas is so much cheaper and less risky. But there are other reasons nuclear power is in trouble as well. Far more plants are in danger of closing than are being built (37 or more may close).

This is a liquid transportation fuels crisis. The Achilles heel of civilization is our dependency on trucks of all kinds, which run on diesel fuel because diesel engines are far more powerful than steam, gasoline, electric or any other engine on earth (Vaclav Smil. 2010. Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines. MIT Press).  Billions of trucks (and equipment) are required to keep the supply chains going that every person and business on earth depends on, as well as mining, agriculture, road / construction, logging trucks and so on)  Since trucks can’t run on electricity, anything that generates electricity is not a solution, nor is it likely that the electric grid can ever be 100% renewable (read “When trucks stop running”, this can’t be explained in a sound-bite), or that we could replace billions of diesel engines in the short time left.  According to a study for the Department of energy society would need to prepare for the peaking of world oil production 10 to 20 years ahead of time (Hirsch 2005).  But conventional oil peaked in 2005 and been on a plateau since then. Here we are 12 years later, totally unprepared, and the public is still buying gas guzzlers whenever oil prices drop, freeway speed limits are still over 55 mph.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Nuclear power costs too much

U.S. nuclear power plants are old and in decline. By 2030, U.S. nuclear power generation might be the source of just 10% of electricity, half of production now, because 38 reactors producing a third of nuclear power are past their 40-year life span, and another 33 reactors producing a third of nuclear power are over 30 years old. Although some will have their licenses extended, 37 reactors that produce half of nuclear power are at risk of closing because of economics, breakdowns, unreliability, long outages, safety, and expensive post-Fukushima retrofits (Cooper 2013. Nuclear power is too expensive, 37 costly reactors predicted to shut down and A third of Nuclear Reactors are going to die of old age in the next 10-20 years.

New reactors are not being built because it takes years to get permits and $8.5–$20 billion in capital must be raised for a new 3400 MW nuclear power plant (O’Grady, E. 2008. Luminant seeks new reactor. London: Reuters.). This is almost impossible since a safer 3400 MW gas plant can be built for $2.5 billion in half the time. What utility wants to spend billions of dollars and wait a decade before a penny of revenue and a watt of electricity is generated?

In the USA there are 104 nuclear plants (largely constructed in the 1970s and 1980s) contributing 19% of our electricity.  Even if all operating plants over 40 years receive renewals to operate for 60 years, starting in 2028 it’s unlikely they can be extended another 20 years, so by 2050 nearly all nuclear plants will be out of business.

Joe Romm “The Nukes of Hazard: One Year After Fukushima, Nuclear Power Remains Too Costly To Be A Major Climate Solution” explains in detail why nuclear power is too expensive, such as:

  • New nuclear reactors are expensive. Recent cost estimates for individual new plants have exceeded $5 billion (for example, see Scroggs, 2008; Moody’s Investor’s Service, 2008).
  • New reactors are intrinsically expensive because they must be able to withstand virtually any risk that we can imagine, including human error and major disasters
  • Based on a 2007 Keystone report, we’d need to add an average of 17 plants each year, while building an average of 9 plants a year to replace those that will be retired, for a total of one nuclear plant every two weeks for four decades — plus 10 Yucca Mountains to store the waste
  • Before 2007, price estimates of $4000/kw for new U.S. nukes were common, but by October 2007 Moody’s Investors Service report, “New Nuclear Generation in the United States,” concluded, “Moody’s believes the all-in cost of a nuclear generating facility could come in at between $5,000 – $6,000/kw.”
  • That same month, Florida Power and Light, “a leader in nuclear power generation,” presented its detailed cost estimate for new nukes to the Florida Public Service Commission. It concluded that two units totaling 2,200 megawatts would cost from $5,500 to $8,100 per kilowatt – $12 billion to $18 billion total!
  • In 2008, Progress Energy informed state regulators that the twin 1,100-megawatt plants it intended to build in Florida would cost $14 billion, which “triples estimates the utility offered little more than a year ago.” That would be more than $6,400 a kilowatt.  (And that didn’t even count the 200-mile $3 billion transmission system utility needs, which would bring the price up to a staggering $7,700 a kilowatt).

Extract from Is Nuclear Power Our Energy Future, Or in a Death Spiral? March 6th, 2016, By Dave Levitan, Ensia:

In general, the more experience accumulated with a given technology, the less it costs to build. This has been dramatically illustrated with the falling costs of wind and solar power. Nuclear, however has bucked the trend, instead demonstrating a sort of “negative learning curve” over time.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the actual costs of 75 of the first nuclear reactors built in the U.S. ran over initial estimates by more than 200 percent. More recently, costs have continued to balloon. Again according to UCS, the price tag for a new nuclear power plant jumped from between US$2 billion and US$4 billion in 2002 all the way US$9 billion in 2008. Put another way, the price shot from below US$2,000 per kilowatt in the early 2000s up to as high as US$8,000 per kilowatt by 2008.

Steve Clemmer, the director of energy research and analysis at UCS, doesn’t see this trend changing. “I’m not seeing much evidence that we’ll see the types of cost reductions [proponents are] talking about. I’m very skeptical about it — great if it happens, but I’m not seeing it,” he says.

Some projects in the U.S. seem to face delays and overruns at every turn. In September 2015, a South Carolina effort to build two new reactors at an existing plant was delayed for three years. In Georgia, a January 2015 filing by plant owner Southern Co. said that its additional two reactors would jump by US$700 million in cost and take an extra 18 months to build. These problems have a number of root causes, from licensing delays to simple construction errors, and no simple solution to the issue is likely to be found.

In Europe the situation is similar, with a couple of particularly egregious examples casting a pall over the industry. Construction began for a new reactor at the Finnish Olkiluoto 3 plant in 2005 but won’t finish until 2018, nine years late and more than US$5 billion over budget. A reactor in France, where nuclear is the primary source of power, is six years behind schedule and more than twice as expensive as projected.

“The history of 60 years or more of reactor building offers no evidence that costs will come down,” Ramana says. “As nuclear technology has matured costs have increased, and all the present indications are that this trend will continue.”

Nuclear plants require huge grid systems, since they’re far from energy consumers. The Financial Times estimates that would require ten thousand billion dollars be invested world-wide in electric power systems over the next 30 years.

In summary, investors aren’t going to invest in new reactors because:

  • of the billions in liability after a meltdown or accident
  • there may only be enough uranium left to power existing plants
  • the cost per plant ties up capital too long (it can take 10 billion dollars over 10 years to build a nuclear power plant)
  • the costs of decommissioning are very high
  • properly dealing with waste is expensive
  • There is no place to put waste — in 2009 Secretary of Energy Chu shut down Yucca mountain and there is no replacement in sight.

Nor will the USA government pay for the nuclear reactors given that public opinion is against that — 72% said no (in E&E news), they weren’t willing for the government to pay for nuclear power reactors through billions of dollars in new federal loan guarantees for new reactors.

Cembalest, an analyst at J.P. Morgan, wrote “In some ways, nuclears goose was cooked by 1992, when the cost of building a 1 GW plant rose by a factor of 5 (in real terms) from 1972” (Cembalest).

Nuclear power depends on fossil fuels to exist (Ahmed 2017)

“One extensive study finds that the construction, mining, milling, transporting, refining, enrichment, waste reprocessing/disposal, fabrication, operation and decommissioning processes of nuclear power are heavily dependent on fossil fuels (Pearce 2008). This raises serious questions about the viability of nuclear power in about two decades time, when hydrocarbon resources are likely to be well past their production peaks.

Further, the study concludes that nuclear power is simply not efficient enough to replace fossil fuels, an endeavor which would require nuclear production to increase by 10.5% every year from 2010 to 2050-an “unsustainable prospect”. This large growth rate requires a “cannibalistic effect”, whereby nuclear energy itself must be used to supply the energy to construct future nuclear power plants. The upshot is that the books cannot be balanced as the tremendous amounts of energy necessary for mining and processing uranium ore, building and operating the power plant, and so on, cannot be offset by output in a high growth scenario. In particular, growth limits are set by the grade of uranium ore available-and high-grade uranium is predicted to become rapidly depleted in coming decades, leaving largely low-grade ore falling below 0.02% (Pearce 2008)”.

Peak Uranium

Energy experts warn that an acute shortage of uranium is going to hit the nuclear energy industry. Dr Yogi Goswami, co-director of the Clean Energy Research Centre at the University of Florida warns that proven reserves of uranium will last less than 30 years. By 2050, all proven and undiscovered reserves of uranium will be over.  Current nuclear plants consume around 67,000 tonnes of high-grade uranium per year. With present world uranium reserves of 5.5 million tons, we have enough to last last 42 years.  If more nuclear plants are built, then we have less than 30 years left (Coumans).

Uranium production peaked in the 1980s but supplies continued to meet demand because weapons decommissioned after the Cold War were converted commercial fuel. Those sources are now drying up, and a new demand-driven peak may be on the horizon.

The only way we could extend our supplies of uranium is to build breeder reactors.  But we don’t have any idea how to do that and we’ve been trying since the 1950s.

China switched on its 19th nuclear power reactor as it rushes to increase nuclear generation. The country plans to switch on 8.64 gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity in 2014 as compared to 3.24 gigawatts of new capacity in 2013. The availability of uranium for China’s nuclear industry is becoming an issue. Beijing may have to import some 80 percent of its uranium by 2020, as compared to the current 60 percent.

There may not even be enough uranium to power existing plants

Source: Colorado Geological survey

Related articles:

Nuclear power is Way too Dangerous

In 2016, top journal Science, based on the National Academy of Sciences of lessons learned from Fukushima, reported that a nuclear spent fuel fire at Peach Bottom in Pennsylvania could force 18 million people to evacuate.  This is because there’s still nowhere to put nuclear waste, so it’s stored in pools of water on-site that are not under the containment dome, but open to the air, and a prime target for terrorists at over 100 locations.  If electric power were ever down more than 10 days due to a natural disaster, electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear weapon / solar flare, or any other reason, these nuclear pools would catch on fire and spew out radiation for many square miles and force millions of people to evacuate.  Also see: Shocking state of world’s riskiest nuclear waste sites

The dangers of nuclear waste is the main reason California and many other states won’t allow new nuclear power plants to open. To find out more about the dangers of nuclear waste and why we have nowhere to store it, read by book review of “Too Hot to touch“.

Greenpeace has a critique of nuclear power called Nuclear Reactor Hazards (2005) which makes the following points:

  1. As nuclear power plants age, components become embrittled, corroded, and eroded. This can happen at a microscopic level which is only detected when a pipe bursts. As a plant ages, the odds of severe incidents increase. Although some components can be replaced, failures in the reactor pressure vessel would lead to a catastrophic release of radioactive material. The risk of a nuclear accident grows significantly each year after 20 years. The average age of power plants now, world-wide, is 21 years.
  2. In a power blackout, if the emergency backup generators don’t kick in, there is the risk of a meltdown. This happened recently in Sweden at the Fosmark power station in 2006. A former director said “It was pure luck that there was not a meltdown. Since the electricity supply from the network didn’t work as it should have, it could have been a catastrophe.” Another few hours and a meltdown could have occurred. It should not surprise anyone that power blackouts will become increasingly common and long-lasting as energy declines.
  3. 3rd generation nuclear plants are pigs wearing lipstick – they’re just gussied up 2nd generation — no safer than existing plants.
  4. Many failures are due to human error, and that will always be the case, no matter how well future plants are designed.
  5. Nuclear power plants are attractive targets for terrorists now and future resource wars. There are dozens of ways to attack nuclear and reprocessing plants. They are targets not only for the huge number of deaths they would cause, but as a source of plutonium to make nuclear bombs. It only takes a few kilograms to make a weapon, and just a few micrograms to cause cancer.

If Greenpeace is right about risks increasing after 20 years, then there’s bound to be a meltdown incident within ten years, which would make it almost impossible to raise capital. (And indeed there was, Fukushima had a meltdown in 2011).

It’s already hard to raise capital, because the owners want to be completely exempt from the costs of nuclear meltdowns and other accidents. That’s why no new plants have been built in the United States for decades.

The Energy Returned on Energy Invested may be too low for investors as well. When you consider the energy required to build a nuclear power plant, which needs tremendous amount of cement, steel pipes, and other infrastructure, it could take a long time for the returned energy to pay back the energy invested. The construction of 1970’s U.S. nuclear power plants required 40 metric tons of steel and 190 cubic meters of concrete per average megawatt of electricity generating capacity (Peterson 2003).

The amount of greenhouse gases emitted during construction is another reason many environmentalists have turned away from nuclear power.

The costs of treating nuclear waste have skyrocketed. An immensely expensive treatment plant to cleanup the Hanford nuclear plant went from costing 4.3 billion in 2000 to 12.2 billion dollars today. If the final treatment plant is ever built, it will be twelve stories high and four football fields long (Dininny 2006).

Nuclear power plants take too long to build

It often takes 10 years to build a nuclear power plant because it takes years to get licensed, fabricate components, and another 4 to 7 years to actually build it. That’s too long for investors to wait, they want far more immediate returns than that. Techno-optimists can argue that some new-fangled kind of reactor could be built more quickly.  But the public is afraid of reactors (rightly so), so it’s bound to go slowly as protestors demand stringent inspections every step of the way.  The public also is concerned with the issues of long-term nuclear waste storage.  So even a small, simple reactor would have many hurdles to overcome.

Financial markets are wary of investments in new nuclear plants until it can be demonstrated they can be constructed on budget and on schedule. Nuclear plants have not been built in the United States for decades, but there are unpleasant memories, because construction of some of the currently operating plants was associated with substantial cost overruns and delays. There is also a significant gap between when construction is initiated and when return on investment is realized.

A crisis will harden public opinion against building new Nuclear Power Plants

I wrote this section before the Fukushima disaster, and there will be more disasters as aging nuclear power plants, extended beyond their lifetime and being pushed to produce electricity full-tilt, succumb to many hazards detailed in the Green Peace International report “Nuclear Reactor Hazards“.  It’s only a matter of time before one of our aging reactors melts down.  When that happens, the public will fight the development of more nuclear power plants.  Other factors besides aging that could cause a disaster are natural disasters, failure of the electric grid, increased and more severe flooding, drought, and severe and unstable weather from climate change, lack of staffing as older workers retire with few educated engineers available to replace them.

Even Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, thought Nuclear Power Plants were dangerous and should be put underground for safety in case of a failure and to make clean-up easier.

Five of the six reactors at the Fukushima plant in Japan were Mark 1 reactors. Thirty-five years ago, Dale G. Bridenbaugh and two of his colleagues at General Electric quit after they became convinced that the Mark 1 nuclear reactor design they were reviewing was so flawed it could lead to a devastating accident (Mosk).

Nuclear power plants are extremely attractive targets for terrorists and in a war.  Uranium is not only stored in the core, but the “waste” area near the plant, providing plenty of material for “dirty” or explosive atom bombs.

For details, read the original document or my summary of the Greenpeace report.

EROEI and decommissioning

See: Decommissioning a nuclear reactor

The energy to build, decommission, dispose of wastes, etc., may be more than the plant will ever generate  a negative Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI).  A review by Charles Hall et al. of net energy studies of nuclear power found the data to be “idiosyncratic, prejudiced, and poorly documented,” and concluded the most reliable EROEI information was too old to be useful (results ranged from 5 to 8:1). Newer data was unjustifiably optimistic (15:1 or more) or pessimistic (low, even less than 1:1).  One of the main reasons EROEI is low is due to the enormous amount of energy used to construct nuclear power plants, which also create a great deal of GHG emissions.


“To produce enough nuclear power to equal the power we currently get from fossil fuels, you would have to build 10,000 of the largest possible nuclear power plants. That’s a huge, probably nonviable initiative, and at that burn rate, our known reserves of uranium would last only for 10 or 20 years.” (Goodstein). Are there enough sites for 10,000 plants near water for cooling yet not so low that rising sea levels destroy them or drought remove cooling water supplies?


Nuclear power has been unpopular for such a long time, that there aren’t enough nuclear engineers, plant operators and designers, or manufacturing companies to scale up quickly (Torres 2006).  The number of American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) nuclear certificates held around the world fell from 600 in 1980 to 200 in 2007. There is also an insufficient supply of people with the requisite education or training at a time when vendors, contractors, architects, engineers, operators, and regulators will be seeking to build up their staffs. In addition, 35% of the staff at U.S nuclear utilities are eligible for retirement in the next 5–10 years.

There could be shortages in certain parts and components (especially large forgings), as well as in trained craft and technical personnel, if nuclear power expands significantly worldwide.

There are fewer suppliers of nuclear parts and components now than in the past.

Nuclear Proliferation & terrorism targets

Can we really prevent crazed dictators for 30,000 years from using plutonium and other wastes to wage war?  Even if a nuclear bomb is beyond the capabilities of society in the future, the waste could be used to make a dirty bomb. Meanwhile, reactors make good targets for terrorists who do have the money to hire scientists help them make a nuclear bomb from stolen uranium or plutonium.


Nuclear plants must be built near water for cooling, and use a tremendous amount of water. Scientists are certain that global warming will raise sea levels — about half of existing power plants would be flooded.  Climate change will cause longer and more severe droughts, with the potential for not enough water to cool the plant down, and more severe storms will bring more hurricanes and tornadoes.


Never underestimate NIMBYism, which is already preventing nuclear power plants from being built. The political opposition to building thousands of nuclear plants will be impossible to overcome.

No good way to store the energy

One of the most critical needs for power is a way to store it. Utility scale storage batteries  have not been invented despite decades of research, and only enough materials exist on earth to build NaS batteries at a cost of over $44 trillion that would take up 945 square miles of real estate (Friedemann 2015)

A great deal of the electric power generated would need to be used to replace the billions of combustion engine machines and vehicles rather than providing heat, cooling, cooking power and light to homes and offices. It takes decades to move from one source of power to another. It’s hard to see how this could be accomplished without great hardship and social chaos, which would slow the conversion process down. Desperation is likely to lead to stealing of key components of the new infrastructure to sell for scrap metal, as is already happening in Baltimore where 30-foot tall street lights are being stolen (Gately 2005).

Related posts:  Energy Storage

Breeder reactors. You’d need 24,000 Breeder Reactors, each one a potential nuclear bomb (Mesarovic)

  • We’ve known since 1969 that we needed to build breeder reactors to stretch the lifetime of radioactive material to tens of thousands of years, and to reduce the radioactive wastes generated, but we still don’t know how to do this. (NAS)
  • If we ever do succeed, these reactors are much closer to being bombs than conventional reactors – the effects of an accident would be catastrophic economically and in the number of lives lost if it failed near a city (Wolfson).
  • The by-product of the breeder reaction is plutonium. Plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. How can we guarantee that no terrorist or dictator will ever use this material to build a nuclear or dirty bomb during this time period?

Assume, as the technology optimists want us to, that in 100 years all primary energy will be nuclear. Following historical patterns, and assuming a not unlikely quadrupling of population, we will need, to satisfy world energy requirements, 3,000 “nuclear parks” each consisting of, say, 8 fast-breeder reactors. These 8 reactors, working at 40% efficiency, will produce 40 million kilowatts of electricity collectively. Therefore, each of the 3,000 nuclear parks will be converting primary nuclear power equivalent to 100 million kilowatts thermal. The largest nuclear reactors presently in operation convert about 1 million kilowatts (electric), but we will give progress the benefit of doubt and assume that our 24,000 worldwide reactors are capable of converting 5 million kilowatts each. In order to produce the world’s energy in 100 years, then, we will merely have to build, in each and every year between now and then, 4 reactors per week! And that figure does not take into account the lifespan of nuclear reactors. If our future nuclear reactors last an average of thirty years, we shall eventually have to build 2 reactors per day to replace those that have worn out.  By 2025, sole reliance on nuclear power would require more than 50 major nuclear installations, on the average, in every state in the union.

For the sake of this discussion, let us disregard whether this rate of construction is technically and organizationally feasible in view of the fact that, at present, the lead time for the construction of much smaller and simpler plants is seven to ten years. Let us also disregard the cost of about $2000 billion per year — or 60 percent of the total world output of $3400 billion — just to replace the worn-out reactors and the availability of the investment capital. We may as well also assume that we could find safe storage facilities for the discarded reactors and their irradiated accessory equipment, and also for the nuclear waste. Let us assume that technology has taken care of all these big problems, leaving us only a few trifles to deal with.

In order to operate 24,000 breeder reactors, we would need to process and transport, every year, 15 million kilograms (16,500 tons) of plutonium-239, the core material of the Hiroshima atom bomb. Only 10 pounds are needed to construct a bomb.  If inhaled, just ten micrograms (.00000035 ounce) of plutonium-239 is likely to cause fatal lung cancer. A ball of plutonium the size of a grapefruit contains enough poison to kill nearly all the people living today. Moreover, plutonium-239 has a radioactive life of more than 24,000 years. Obviously, with so much plutonium on hand, there will be a tremendous problem of safeguarding the nuclear parks — not one or two, but 3000 of them. And what about their location, national sovereignty, and jurisdiction? Can one country allow inadequate protection in a neighboring country, when the slightest mishap could poison adjacent lands and populations for thousands and thousands of years? And who is to decide what constitutes adequate protection, especially in the case of social turmoil, civil war, war between nations, or even only when a national leader comes down with a case of bad nerves. The lives of millions could easily be beholden to a single reckless and daring individual.


Ahmed, Nafeez. 2017. Failing States, Collapsing Systems BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence. Springer.

Cembalest, M.21 Nov 2011. Eye on the Market. The quixotic search for energy solutions.  J P Morgan

Coumans, C.  4 Sep 2010. Uranium reserves to be over by 2050. Deccan Chronicle

Dininny, S. 7 Sep 2006. Cost for Hanford waste treatment plant grows to $12.2 billion. The Olympian / Associated Press.

Friedemann, A. 2015. When Trucks stop running: Energy and the Future of Transportation. Springer.

Gately, G. 25 Nov 2005. Light poles vanishing — believed sold for scrap by thieves 130 street fixtures in Baltimore have been cut down. New York Times.

Goodstein, D. April 29, 2005. Transcript of The End of the Age of Oil talk

(Greenpeace) H. Hirsch, et al. 2005. Nuclear Reactor Hazards: Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/international/press/reports/nuclearreactorhazards.pdf

Heinberg, Richard. September 2009. Searching for a Miracle. “Net Energy” Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society. Post Carbon Institute.

Hirsch, R. L., et al. February 2005. Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, mitigation, & risk management. Department of Energy.

Hoyos, C. 19 OCT 2003 Power sector 'to need $10,000 bn in next 30 years'. Financial Times.

Mesarovic, Mihajlo, et al. 1974. Mankind at the Turning Point.  The Second Club of Rome Report.  E.P. Dutton, 1974 pp. 132-135

Mosk, M. 15 Mar 2011. Fukushima: Mark 1 Nuclear Reactor Design Caused GE Scientist To Quit In Protest. ABC World News.

(NAS) “It is clear, therefore, that by the transition to a complete breeder-reactor program before the initial supply of uranium 235 is exhausted, very much larger supplies of energy can be made available than now exist. Failure to make this transition would constitute one of the major disasters in human history." National Academy of Sciences. 1969. Resources & Man. W.H.Freeman, San Francisco. 259.

Peterson, P. 2003. Will the United States Need a Second Geologic Repository? The Bridge 33 (3), 26-32.

Pearce, J. M. 2008. Thermodynamic Limitations to nuclear energy deployment as a greenhouse gas mitigation technology. International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology 2(1): 113.

Torres, M. “Uranium Depletion and Nuclear Power: Are We at Peak Uranium?” http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2379#more

Wolfson, R. 1993. Nuclear Choices: A Citizen's Guide to Nuclear Technology. MIT Press

To see what plants are open, closing, or being built (excel):

United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission 2014-2015 Information Digest. Nuclear materials, radioactive waste, nuclear reactors, nuclear security.

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14 Responses to Why Nuclear Power is not an alternative to fossil fuels

  1. Rice Farmer says:

    As the economy collapses and nuclear power plant operators find themselves increasingly short on financing and income from ratepayers, the crisis will become acute. Further, nuclear plants require offsite power to cool reactor cores and spent fuel pools (unlike a nuclear reaction, decay heat cannot be stopped). As the grid starts to collapse, offsite power will fail, making disaster is just a matter of time. That is why nuclear power plants are literally time bombs, and the planet is littered with hundreds of them. There are few, if any, places to hide.

  2. Eclipse says:

    There are far too many myths here to begin to know where to start!

    Expensive nuclear power is a particularly American problem, due to their unique regulatory framework that cripples American nuclear. There are countries building nuclear far cheaper than America. Check South Korea! “We find that trends in costs have varied significantly in magnitude and in structure by era, country, and experience. In contrast to the rapid cost escalation that characterized nuclear construction in the United States, we find evidence of much milder cost escalation in many countries, including absolute cost declines in some countries and specific eras. Our new findings suggest that there is no inherent cost escalation trend associated with nuclear technology.”

    Except France runs on 75% nuclear, and 25% hydro, showing that a majority nuclear grid is possible. Just as we have a variety of transport fuels today, a post-oil world will have a mix of EV’s, synthetic diesel from seawater, and recyclable boron metal powder. The EROEI of nukes can be demonstrated to be quite high: but BREEDER REACTORS do away with the mining and refining component! That’s a VAST energy saving, and I’ve seen papers that calculate BREEDERS to have EROEI’s in the HIGH HUNDREDS, possibly over a 1000!

    “The only way we could extend our supplies of uranium is to build breeder reactors. But we don’t have any idea how to do that and we’ve been trying since the 1950s.”
    MYTH! We HAVE NOT really been trying to build breeders since the 1950’s because cheap uranium killed the program. Like any new technology, there is the VHS V Betamax phase. We’re testing various ideas. But we DO have 400 reactor-years worth of experience with breeders, some of which failed, some of which were terrific success and passed Fukushima styled power failures with flying colours! The EBR2 did exactly that!

    GE are ready for their PRISM to come off the production line. The physics has been completely and magnificently demonstrated at the EBR2, and the PRISM is now into commercial testing when the first country lets them do it. Then they’ll fly off the production line, probably cheaper than coal!

    But in reality, new designs could make breeders cheaper than traditional once-through reactors like Light Water Reactors! There are 2 types:

    1. Fast Neutron reactors.

    Russia had the old BN-350, and then built the Bn-600. Note: the Japanese paid Russia a billion for the technical specs on their old BN-600, and “The operation of the reactor is an international study in progress; Russia, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom currently participate.”

    THEY JUST OPENED THE BRAND NEW BN-800!!! (and sold the plans to China).

    They are building 11 new normal reactors over the next few years, including 2 whopping great BN-1200’s!

    These are BREEDERS. They’re not GENIV breeders, which tend to have integrated on site fuel reprocessing: I think their fuel goes off site for reprocessing. But they do BREED fuel, successfully. It’s simply wrong to say we’ve been failing since the 50’s, if you DON’T BELIEVE ME READ THE WIKIS!

    China will mass produce breeder nukes cheaper than coal in just 6 years! Oh, and these will be GENIV.

    2. Thermal (slow neutron) reactors run hotter
    My favourite thermal reactor is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor which CANNOT ‘melt down’, as it is already a liquid! See China’s plans!

    America has enough nuclear waste to run her for 1,000 years and this has been estimated to be worth $30 TRILLION dollars!

    The United Kingdom has enough waste to run her for 500 years.

    When we finally run out of today’s nuclear waste to burn in 500 years my guess is we might not even need fission reactors any more. But if we do still need to use IFR’s and LFTR’s, what then? Uranium from seawater is ‘renewable’ in the sense that erosion constantly tops up the uranium particles floating in the ocean, 3 times faster than we could use it. It will last us a billion years.

    SAFETY: “In a power blackout, if the emergency backup generators don’t kick in, there is the risk of a meltdown.”

    1. GenIV breeder reactors actually NEED POWER TO FISSION, not the other way around. Without power, they simply shut down. That’s what the EBR2 safety test (above) proved. Fukushima = impossible. It’s that simple.
    2. As already stated, Molten Salt Reactors are already a liquid. Their problem is that without power, the cooling fan at the bottom of the reactor stops blowing, the frozen salt instantly melts, and the fuel drains down into the heat dumping drain tank and hardens. MSR’s don’t “melt-down” in a power failure, they “harden-up!” They’re the OPPOSITE!
    3. If you drop a missile on an MSR, sure some radioactive material might vaporise, but the fuel is chemically locked to the salts and will harden as the salt dries (it dries at about 450C!) So it won’t just keep melting down and burn and burn and spread all over the continent. Rather, the salt will crystallise quickly and fall back down in the local area. So even terrorist attacks on MSR’s cannot wipe out a whole city region!

    France built 15 reactors a year, and converted it’s grid to three-quarters nuclear in just 15 years. That’s the kind of build out speed that is possible in an emergency! Dr James Hansen says the world should build 115 reactors a year.
    On a reactors-to-GDP ratio the French *already* beat this build rate back in the 70’s under the Mesmer plan. 115 reactors a year should be easy for the world economy. France did it *faster* with older technology, and today’s nukes can be mass produced on an assembly line. Read the free book that Dr James Hansen recommends, Prescription for the Planet, at the link below. It also has a great chapter on boron as oil replacement.

    • energyskeptic says:

      There are no COMMERCIAL breeders. They have been tried in Russia, Japan, and elsewhere. Ones being built now are DEMONSTRATION and there is no guarantee they will work this time either. If they did, welcome to death by plutonium. Dictators for the next 30,000 years will be able to wipe humans off the planet. But it doesn’t matter! Electricity doesn’t solve the problem because diesel engines run on diesel fuel and equipment and vehicles can’t run on batteries or overhead wires, especially off road vehicles like tractors, harvesters, logging, road construction, and mining trucks.

      • Eclipse says:

        “Electricity doesn’t solve the energy crisis! It is irrelevant.”

        You know that just repeating this 3 times doesn’t make synthetic diesel from nukes + seawater disappear? The military is perfecting this so nuclear powered aircraft carriers can generate jet fuel at sea. Abundant electricity could replace roughly HALF our oil needs DIRECTLY, and the other half through synfuels.

        The EROEI of today’s nuclear power ranges from 11 to 180, depending on initial assumptions, so I would hardly call down the EROEI demons with any kind of certainty as a case against nuclear when even some of the worst studies would still run today’s society.

        As for breeder reactors? Yes, the EBR2 was a test reactor, and it worked perfectly. Got any dirt on it? It’s what GE are trying to commercialise. BTW, there was a first propeller plane, first jet, first microwave, first smart phone and first internet connection as well. They were all test types.

        I’ll post this again: please read the links, and try to come up with something less trite. The EROEI of these will be an order of magnitude better than today’s nukes because they eliminate the mining and refining of uranium, getting 60 to 90 times the energy out of uranium!

        Got any dirt on the following breeders?
        Russia had the old BN-350, and then built the Bn-600. Note: the Japanese paid Russia a billion for the technical specs on their old BN-600, and “The operation of the reactor is an international study in progress; Russia, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom currently participate.”

        They just opened the BN-800 (and sold the plans to China).

        They are building 11 new normal reactors over the next few years, including 2 whopping great BN-1200’s!

        G.E. have the PRISM ready for commercial prototype testing (as the original proof-of-concept testing was done decades ago in the EBR2). They are basically ready to deploy in the first country that will let them.

        China will mass produce breeder nukes cheaper than coal in just 6 years!

        America has enough nuclear waste to run her for 1,000 years and this has been estimated to be worth $30 TRILLION dollars!

        The United Kingdom has enough waste to run her for 500 years.

        • energyskeptic says:

          bravenewworld and nextbigfuture and wiki are not peer-reviewed evidence. There are hundreds of thousands of these press release/breakthrough announcements across all alternative energies a year. We’re all supposed to have hydrogen cars by now. In 1900 newspapers said that better batteries were surely around the corner because everyone wanted them so badly. Please provide real evidence. How many jet fuel is the Navy producing now? If this is a commercial process, where are the private companies doing this — billions of dollars are to be made! When Science and Nature say that breeder reactors are good to go commercially I’ll believe you. Otherwise they are fantasies like tens of thousands of other articles that are published all the time.

          • Eclipse says:

            You rang? Below is Nature Magazine on breeders. Breeders are the future. Right now we should be mass producing TODAY’S AP1000’s. Traditional uranium mining and reprocessing can keep things going until breeders are ready to come pouring off the production line. So we can build Gen3 reactors like the AP1000 until the Gen4’s are really commercialised in a few decades. We don’t NEED breeders right now, they’re the longer term answer.

            NATURE MAGAZINE:
            “Nuclear energy: Radical reactors
            For decades, one design has dominated nuclear reactors while potentially better options were left by the wayside. Now, the alternatives might finally have their day….

            ….The potential market is substantial, says Eric Loewen, head of advanced-reactor development for General Electric-Hitachi. “We have a usability study going on with the United Kingdom, where we would take the 100 tonnes of plutonium from their reprocessing plants and turn it into an energy resource,” he says. And in the United States and elsewhere, he says, “our vision is a network of advanced recycling centres”, each with six S-PRISM reactors and one recycling centre that could keep up with the waste from between one and three light-water reactors, and get rid of the backlog currently sitting in storage.

            That network will not be cheap. But the fundamental challenge is political, says Loewen, echoing Forsberg and many other experts: what is needed is “a policy framework that lets people see spent fuel as an asset, rather than something to be thrown away.””

          • energyskeptic says:

            I am not questioning that there are better reactor designs now. But they are still decades away from being built. By then, petroleum will be scarce and devoted to growing and delivering food and other essential services. Right now, battery and catenary heavy-duty trucks are commercially impossible, and probably always will be due to the laws of physics. Without trucks, advanced nuclear power plants can’t be built or maintained. Only if fusion had been invented 30 or more years ago would there have perhaps been an alternative to fossil fuels possibly (see my posts on Fusion).

            The article you cite makes clear that these advanced reactors are years to decades away (the few that are built in China won’t make a bit of difference because China is past peak oil, and Saudi Arabia and other producing countries will have stopped exporting oil by 2030, grounding China’s truck fleet).

            And long before that the financial system, which was never fixed, will fail, and there won’t be the money to build next generation nuclear plants.

            From the 2012 nature article it is clear that even after being built they will be tested for many years to be sure they’re safe because “engineers hoping to put them into practice must develop things such as radiation-resistant materials, more-efficient heat exchangers and improved safety systems — and must then prove to regulators that all these systems will work. “Nuclear is hard,” says Edwin Lyman, senior global-security analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s expensive. It’s slow. And the stakes are very high, because safety has to be a factor.” If all goes to plan, high-temperature systems will be among the first advanced reactors to be deployed, starting in the 2020s. “And then we build fast reactors to consume the waste.”

            Meanwhile other biophysical factors besides oil can also bring civilization down – topsoil erosion, aquifer depletion, climate change lowering crop production, 90% of fish gone from the ocean with acidification killing growing numbers of what’s left, phosphorous shortages looming, desertification, pandemics, electromagnetic pulse from solar flares or nuclear weapons or suitcase sized kits with instructions on how to build them available on the internet, exponential growth, and all the other factors at energyskeptic.

          • Eclipse says:

            “Without trucks, advanced nuclear power plants can’t be built or maintained.”
            1. In a few decades, can you imagine how far EV’s will have progressed and how that will take the pressure of the gasoline sector? Remember, gasoline is about half our oil dependency, and the majority can just be plugged into today’s grid.
            2. Europeans use about half the oil per capita of America. With a little education from early adopters like Portland, America could go a significant way towards converting suburbia into New Urbanism over 20 years, with incremental benefits as each new all-electric trolley bus is installed. (Assuming a fuel emergency).
            3. Rationing, rationing, rationing.

            Diesel ONLY makes up a quarter of the liquid fuel market! Remember in a real liquid fuel emergency that overnight, cargo ships can be converted to sailing ships and cut trucking vulnerability even further. “HALF the world’s population lives within 60 km of the sea, and three-quarters of all large cities are located on the coast.”
            So, just for arguments sake (as I really don’t think supplying a quarter of our oil is going to be a problem), let’s assume that over the next 20 years peak oil hits and EV’s explode into the light vehicle market. That’s HALF the oil dealt with, mainly supplied from TODAY’S grid. (NREL study). Then there’s a few geopolitical crisis & the Export Land Model cuts oil even further! Oh no, it’s the end! Maybe not. Maybe a bunch of online communicators will remember the Aussie sailing vessel plan for WW2, and convert cargo ships to sailing vessels to move *essential* stuff around.

            Once again, HALF the world’s population lives on the coast, and could be supplied by sailing. Seriously. Read the stats. Think about where people actually live on this planet. HALF the people live within light EV trucking distance of ports. HALF, as a global average. Sure, some nations have more inland, like America. Some have less, and are mostly on the coast, like Australia! We have 84% of our people within 50km of the coast!
            America, being a kind of big superpower, will make sure it gets the diesel it needs. You’ll be OK. After all, in this scenario, HALF the world gets their trucking replaced with good old fashioned sailboats AND of course some localised supply needs like Victory gardens, etc. Economies adapt.

            So with HALF the DIESEL replaced with sailboats, now we’re down to having to come up with 1/8th the world’s oil needs for the last bit of trucking, and that’s including America’s 80% inland in the GLOBAL statistics.

            Also, about half of world shipping carries coal and oil around. If most nations are making their own electricity with nukes and their own synthetic diesel from seawater, then that could cut the heavy oil required for shipping. This is doable!

            Tell me, was there the money to build the Hoover Dam in the Great Depression? Say a Greater Depression starts and the world loses a third of its $70 TRILLION GDP. Are you telling that that a $50 TRILLION dollar a year economy will not make jobs and more energy in a massive energy build out?

            There are 3 amazing options to replace that last 1/8th of the oil that we need to replace diesel in trucking, and I honestly cannot tell which option is going to be the most economical.

            1. BLUE CRUDE (or / E-diesel / nuclear powered synthetic diesel from seawater).
            The science behind extracting CO2 from seawater and turning it into diesel is here.

            The nukes to run this can be today’s nukes. We can TAKE OUR TIME to get the breeders right. They’ll get 60 to 90 times the energy out of the same uranium AND convert a 100 thousand year waste problem into waste that will only stay hot for 300 years. BUT WE DON’T EVEN NEED BREEDERS TODAY! There are a variety of Gen3 reactors operational today.
            My favourite, at this stage, is just being built now.

            2. BORON POWDER
            Again powered by nukes and renewables. Dr James Hansen describes it here

            3. SEAWEED!
            And before you have a real doomer scoff at seaweed, how about reading a peer-reviewed paper that challenges your worldview for once? It’s about 90 minutes to really read properly.

            Growing kelp farms over 9% of the world’s oceans could eventually sequester ALL our CO2, provide ALL our biofuel and methane (natural gas) energy needs, and feed the world while removing ocean acidity! In other words, a silver bullet to feed the world, save the oceans, and save us from climate change, all in this free PDF. goo.gl/aTtfW

            At first I was sceptical as kelp forests require nutrient rich upwellings, and that’s only around 2% of the world’s oceans. goo.gl/kjRzQf
            But the above peer-reviewed paper claims that they have submersible digesters out in the ocean that slowly draw in the kelp when it is ready to harvest, biodigest it, release the energy gases and then recycle all the nutrients back out to the kelp farms in big tea-bags that slowly release nutrients, fertilising the next round of kelp!

            The also claim it will:-
            * be a rich source of vegetarian super-food in its own right, and help form a whole variety of seaweed ice-creams, salads, sauces, and other food ingredients. (Food seaweed is of course not recycled on site, and so comes from the nutrient rich 2% of our oceans).
            * stimulate fisheries and other symbiotic shellfish and oysters to the tune of about 200kg of seafood per person annually, feeding a world of 10 billion people over half a kilo of seafood a day!! Watch this 15 minute TED talk about seaweed feeding the world!
            * provide all the fertilisers we could want for farmlands with a special salt-filtering membrane, and recapture the NPK nutrients we currently flush out to sea.
            * provide all the renewable bio-methane we could want to back up a renewable grid (and I’ll admit I’m normally pro-nuclear!)
            * COWS: A special seaweed can be fed to cows to supplement their diet a little with drastic results: it eliminates their methane burps, which have been shown to lose 15% of the cow’s potential growth gains! https://goo.gl/J27gw0

            Again, it’s all here. Another amazing option!

            So EVEN IF there’s some kind of freaky serious oil emergency in a few decades, are you STILL going to insist that we can’t supply 1/8th of our diesel trucking needs to mine and build the next reactors, grow food, etc? If so, why? What *rational* reason do you have for thinking the world cannot come up with 1/8th the fuel when we can use a bunch of emergency measures like sailing, EV’s, cycling, rickshaws, New Urbanism, increases in public transport like trains, trams, and trolley buses, car sharing, slightly relocalising economies, and even robot-EV cabs that could displace oil cars 10 to 1!? (Meaning we only have to build 200 million, not 2 billion cars!)

          • energyskeptic says:

            All of what you bring up is covered at energy skeptic. I like your interest and passion in energy, you are WAAAAAY ahead of most Americans to even realize there may be a problem some day. But your seeking out of only positive information that is about technologies in the future, often press releases or advocate sites, not scientific literature, needs to be balanced with peer-reviewed information that perhaps it just ain’t so. This is hard to find! That’s why I write these posts — I go the University of California library regularly and do research there, I am in touch with hundreds of scientists across many fields (ecology, geology, the oil and gas industry, botany, etc) and energy forums with news from all over the world that counter the rosy views of press releases. Take advantage of all my hard work and read some of the posts here, and then read the references to delve deeper, because much of the information is behind paywalls and does not turn up in internet searches!

            You clearly haven’t read my article about why kelp fuel won’t work in post Fill ‘er up with kelp? at http://energyskeptic.com/2012/kelp-seaweed-fuel/

            Or my articles on electric trucks under http://energyskeptic.com/category/decline/transportation-a-1000-cuts/trucks/electric-trucks/

            Making the most energy dense battery from the palette of the periodic table
            Hydrogen, the Homeopathic energy crisis remedy
            Diesel is finite. Trucks are the bedrock of civilization. So where are the battery electric trucks?
            Just 16,000 catenary trucks would use 1% of California’s electricity generation, all vehicles 2.5 times more power than available
            All Electric Trucks. Probably not going to happen. Ever. Why not?
            Hybrid electric trucks are very different from HEV cars
            Electric truck range is less in cold weather
            Utility scale energy storage batteries limited by materials and few locations for pumped hydro, compressed air
            Roger Andrews: California public utilities vote no on energy storage
            Electric Grid Energy Storage
            Would Tesla, li-ion batteries, SolarCity or SpaceX exist without $4.9 billion in government subsidies?
            Electric vehicle overview
            What is the life span of a vehicle Lithium-ion Battery?
            EPA LCA study lithium-ion battery environmental impact, energy used, recycling issues
            Bloomberg News: Tesla’s new battery doesn’t work that well with solar
            Renewable Energy can’t supply more than 30% of electricity without revolutionary battery breakthrough
            Revolutionary understanding of physics needed to improve batteries – don’t hold your breath
            American Physical Society: has the Battery Bubble Burst?
            Batteries are made of rare, declining, and imported minerals
            Battery energy density too low to power cars
            Notes from “The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World” by Steve LeVine
            Why aren’t there Battery Powered Airplanes?

          • Eclipse says:

            I honestly can’t believe the circular logic used in your kelp piece.

            EG: “Harm to fisheries and other wildlife. Norway is also interested in biofuels from kelp, and recommends not removing more than 1% of kelp per year because kelp forests are an important nursery and feeding ground for a wide range of invertebrates and fish.”
            Well, it’s a good thing we’re not talking about just running out and cutting down all the world’s kelp forests then, isn’t it? Far out! We’re talking about increasing the world’s kelp farms 100 fold, maybe even 1000 or 10,000 fold! We’re talking about massively increasing the world’s fertile oceanic ecosystems from nutrient upwelling areas of naturally occurring about 2% of the ocean’s surface to about 9%!! How? You’ll have to read the peer reviewed paper, won’t you!

            “Transporting the water weight of seaweed is another showstopper. The water weight of corn stover needs to be reduced down to 6% water so trucks would burn less fuel hauling it to the biorefinery. Brown seaweed is 88% water. Coasts are cool and often cloudy, making it difficult to dry, plus find the space alongshore to put it, and keep flies and other pests from eating or composting it.”
            Well, it’s a good thing they’re not moving that kelp around in trucks again, isn’t it!? Oh, but you might have to read the peer-reviewed paper to find out how they biodigest it in submerged floating bioreactors over a slow 135 day digestion burn, hey? Heard of those before? No, I didn’t think so.

            “In addition to steps similar to land-based biorefineries above, seaweed has these pre-processing steps:
            To get rid of stones, sand, litter, adhering fauna, etc.
            to Mill seaweed to small particles (more efficiently processed).
            Drying the seaweed out in machines.
            Removing sulfur, nitrogen, salt, polyphenols, etc.”
            That’s what I would have thought as well, given what we normally think of a ‘refinery’ is a big steel structure that refines oil. Except we’re not talking about refineries in that sense AT ALL, but more like big floating biodigesters or ‘ocean stomachs’ doing their thing with no rush at all!

            Oh, and please don’t throw EROEI at us until you have a clue about this WHOLE NEW PROCESS that’s NOTHING like the one you’re attempting to ‘debunk’ here. EROEI is positive, and listed in the study. If you’d read it, and look out for the energy consumed in the process and energy returned.

    • energyskeptic says:

      see Navy claims that fuel can be made from seawater

      You could have googled this information yourself…

      • Eclipse says:

        Yes, but your site is biased. So WHAT if the EROE is negative if the original power source is nuclear with an EROEI somewhere between 11 to 50 or even 75? What’s your great big argument against that?

        “Even if the plan is to use nuclear power, then the energy to mine, process, and deliver new nuclear fuel to keep this process going must be subtracted from the overall EROI, not the mention the ship itself, the metal that made the ship and nuclear reactor, and so on.”
        I *just* don’t care!
        1. The grid can supply that electricity, and that will be a mix of renewables and nuclear.
        2. Society as a whole can adapt to more EROEI friendly, energy efficient city designs with more public transport, walkable communities with local shops, high-rise towers that use electricity rather than oil for transport, EV’s, etc etc etc.
        3. We’re only talking about a quarter of the oil we use today called diesel.
        4. Some trucking routes that are busy enough might just qualify for electric fast rail or normal speed fast rail.
        5. Nukes have a high enough EROEI to run synthetic diesel from seawater, which is worth the extra expense to get diesel, a far superior energy carrier to hydrogen which leaks, requires expensive fuel cells, can’t run in today’s trucks, etc etc etc.
        6. FUTURE (yes, in a few decades) reactors will have EROEI’s in the HIGH HUNDREDS, possibly near 1000, because they DON’T MINE URANIUM! Today’s nuclear ‘waste’ could run the UK for 500 years and America for 1000! That’s what happens when you get 60 to 90 times as much energy out of the uranium.
        7. Don’t act like your silly EROEI argument quoting from your OWN WEBSITE is some kind of authority. I at least quote from other sources when I’m linking to summary pages on my own site. But when you link to an article and it basically just raves about the energy cost of splitting water WITHOUT a viable reason as to WHY we can’t do that for a niche (but still large) energy market, then it’s just not a really credible post, is it? YES, all energy carriers, be they batteries, boron, or “Blue Diesel” all cost more energy than they return. YES, “Blue Diesel” will probably cost more energy than the others. But this is already factored into the price-per gallon and high EROEI of nuclear. And it’s only for a quarter of today’s oil use. And Russia DID just open the BN-800, and you DON’T have a credible argument against it, and you simply don’t know *what* battery developments might occur in the next few decades, nor what might happen with fusion, nor what might happen with cellulosic ethanol, nor algae ponds, nor even biofuels from seaweed!

  3. John Roberts says:

    Eclipse your a rational terrorist. Your theoretical hypothesis is only that. You don’t understand complexity and you obviously have no appreciation for Alice work. Thermodynamics is totally against your reasoning. You only consider the frothy headlines without considering the real cost of implementing your ideas. For a change float your ideas on ourfiniteworld.com instead of here unless of course you really aren’t interested in a challenge.