Nuclear reactor issues

Preface.  There are half a dozen articles below. Although safety and disposal of nuclear waste ought to be the main reasons why no more plants should be built, what will really stop them is 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 2008). This is almost impossible when a much cheaper and much safer 3400 MW natural gas plant can be built for $2.5 billion in half the time or less.

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 their 20% production of electricity 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).

If you’ve read the nuclear reactor hazards paper or my summary of it, then you understand why there will continually be accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl.  That makes investors and governments fearful of spending billions of dollars to build nuclear plants.

Nor will people be willing to use precious oil as it declines to build a nuclear power plant that could take up to 10 years to build, when that oil will be more needed for tractors to plant and harvest food and trucks to deliver the food to cities (electric power can’t do that, tractors and trucks have to run on oil).

If CO2 reduction is the goal, nuclear power produces more carbon emissions than renewables (Sovacool et al 2020).

And if we are dumb enough to try, we’ll smack into the brick wall of Peak Uranium.

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

Nuclear Safety in the news

The International Atomic Energy Agency is supposed to keep track of all the nuclear incidents in the world, but if you go to their incident report page, you’ll notice that the Turkey Point reactor issues in the March 22, 2016 article aren’t mentioned, and British newspaper “The Guardian” also says that their list is incomplete. Wikipedia is very much out of date, but has some fairly long lists of nuclear problems.  The NRDC has a good deal of information, for instance, their article called “What if the Fukushima nuclear fallout crisis had happened here?” where you can see how hit your home would be if the nearest nuclear reactor had a similar level of disaster.

Deign J (2020) MIT Study Lays Bare Why Nuclear Costs Keep Rising. Greentechmedia

The main reason for spiraling nuclear plant construction bills is soft costs, the indirect expenses related to activities such as engineering design, purchasing, planning, scheduling and — ironically — estimating and cost control. These indirect expenses accounted for 72% of the increase seen in reactor construction costs between 1976 and 1987, a period in which the amount of money needed for containment buildings rose by almost 118%.

The research is sober reading for those who contend that the more times a reactor model is built, the less it will cost. The MIT study found that in 3 out of 4 reactor designs, the first to be built was the cheapest.  Productivity keeps going down, often due to delays which add to costs as workers are idle.

Some argue that Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) will be cheaper, but they aren’t likely to be commercial for a decade or more, plus the costs are uncertain.

Dujmovic, J. 2019. Think fossil fuels are bad? Nuclear energy is even worse. MarketWatch

Not long ago, I wrote about nuclear plants and the large number of “incidents” (many of which go under the radar) that occur every year, despite upgrades, updates, technological advancements and research that’s put in nuclear energy.

Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have come up with an unsettling discovery. Using the most complete and up-to-date list of nuclear accidents to predict the likelihood of another nuclear cataclysm, they concluded that there is a 50% chance of a Chernobyl-like event (or larger) occurring in the next 27 years, and that we have only 10 years until an event similar to Three Mile Island, also with the same probability. (The Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor, near Middletown, Pa., partially melted down on March 28, 1979. This was the most serious commercial nuclear-plant accident in the U.S.)

Then there’s the problem of nuclear waste. Just in the U.S., commercial nuclear-power plants have generated 80,000 metric tons of useless but highly dangerous and radioactive spent nuclear fuel — enough to fill a football field about 20 meters (65 feet) deep.  Over the next few decades, the amount of waste will increase to 140,000 metric tons, but there is still no disposal site in the U.S. or a clear plan on how to store this highly dangerous material.

Nuclear waste will remain dangerous — deadly to humans and toxic to nature — for hundreds of thousands of years.

Digging deep wells and tunnels in which it can be stored is simply kicking a very dangerous can down the road — a can that can break open and contaminate the environment because of earthquakes, human error and acts of terrorism.

Let’s also not forget that the majority of developed countries have felt the need to use seas and oceans as nuclear-dumping sites. Although the practice was prohibited in 1994, the damage was already done. The current amount of nuclear waste in world seas greatly exceeds what’s currently stored in the U.S. And that’s just documented waste, so the exact number may be much higher.

Some may be comforted by the fact that 2011 data suggest the damage to the environment was minimal, but let’s not forget that these containers will eventually decay and their contents will spill and mix with water, polluting marine life and changing the biosphere. Finally, all of this contamination comes back to us in the form of food we eat, water we drink and air we breathe.

Ambellas, S. January 6, 2017. Overwhelmed Massachusetts nuclear power plant spikes with radiation. The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant has spiked with radiation to near alert levels alarming officials.

Alvarez, L. March 22, 2016. Nuclear Plant Leak Threatens Drinking Water Wells in Florida. New York Times.

Turkey point, in Florida is the culprit, also mentioned as one of 37 plants at risk of closing in Cooper’s article.

April 2014 ASPO newsletter

“Nuclear power is probably the biggest asset we have in the fight against climate change…But I’m a business guy and I’m a pragmatist, and there’s no future for nuclear in the United States. There’s certainly no future for new nuclear… [Very few know] how close the system came to collapsing in January because everyone wants to go to natural gas and there wasn’t enough natural gas in the system.  The purpose of having old coal plants, to be frank, is keeping the lights on for the next three, five, 10 years…I’m not anti-utilities, I’m not anti-nuclear, I’m not anti-coal, I’m just anti-bullshit.” — David Crane, CEO of NRG Inc., the U.S.’ largest independent power generator

Matthew Wald. 8 Jun 2012. Court Forces a Rethinking of Nuclear Fuel. New York Times.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted hastily in concluding that spent fuel can be stored safely at nuclear plants for the next century or so in the absence of a permanent repository, and it must consider what will happen if none are ever established, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.  The commission’s wrong decision was made so that the operating licenses of dozens of power reactors (and 4 new ones) could be extended.

The three judge panel unanimously decided that the commission was wrong to assume nuclear fuel would be safe for many decades without analyzing actual reactor storage pools individually across the nation. Nor did they adequately analyze the risk that cooling water might leak from the pools or that the fuel could ignite.

22 May 2012. Severe Nuclear Reactor Accidents Likely Every 10 to 20 Years, European Study Suggests. ScienceDaily

Catastrophic nuclear accidents such as the core meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukushima are more likely to happen than previously assumed. Based on the operating hours of all civil nuclear reactors and the number of nuclear meltdowns that have occurred, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry have calculated that such events may occur once every 10 to 20 years — some 200 times more often than estimated in the past. The researchers also determined that 50% of the radioactive caesium-137 would be spread over an area of more than 1,000 kilometres away from the nuclear reactor, and 25% would go more than 2,000 kilometres. Their results show that Western Europe is likely to be contaminated about once in 50 years by more than 40 kilobecquerel of caesium-137 per square meter. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, an area is defined as being contaminated with radiation from this amount onwards. In view of their findings, the researchers call for an in-depth analysis and reassessment of the risks associated with nuclear power plants.  Currently, there are 440 nuclear reactors in operation, and 60 more are planned.
Citizens in the densely populated southwestern part of Germany run the worldwide highest risk of radioactive contamination. If a single nuclear meltdown were to occur in Western Europe, around 28 million people on average would be affected by contamination of more than 40 kilobecquerels per square meter. This figure is even higher in southern Asia, due to the dense populations. A major nuclear accident there would affect around 34 million people, while in the eastern USA and in East Asia this would be 14 to 21 million people.
Reference: J. Lelieveld, et al. Global risk of radioactive fallout after major nuclear reactor accidents. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 2012; 12 (9): 4245

Smith, Rebecca. 4 Feb 2012. Worn Pipes Shut California Reactors.  Wall Street Journal. The two reactors at the San Onofre nuclear-power station near San Clemente, Calif., will remain shut down this weekend while federal safety officials investigate why critical—and relatively new—equipment is showing signs of premature wear.  Components in nuclear plants are subjected to extreme heat, pressure, radiation and chemical exposure, all of which can take a toll on materials.  Commission inspectors say they also have found problems with hundreds of steam tubes at the plant’s other reactor.   Experts say the closures may signal a broader problem for the nuclear industry, which has been trying to reassure Americans that its aging reactors are safe in the wake of last year’s disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. Mr. Dricks said. Two pipes had lost 35% of their wall thickness in just two years of service. Most—about 800—had lost 10% to 20% of wall thickness. The pipes are about three-quarters of an inch in diameter.

Munson, R. 2008. From Edison to Enron: The Business of Power and What It Means for the Future of Electricity. Praeger.

Cost overruns on reactors nearly drove some power companies into bankruptcy.   In 1984 the Department of Energy calculated more than 75% of reactors cost at least double the estimated price.

Utility WPPSS in Washington state defaulted, scaring investors, who once thought there’d be over a thousand reactors running by 2000 with electricity too cheap to meter.  In fact, only 82 plants existed in 2000 and power prices soared 60% between 1969 and 1984 due to the cost overruns.

Nuclear executives tried to blame their problems on too much regulation and environmentalists, but regulations only came after reactors began to break down.   Intense radiation and high temperatures caused pipes, valves, tubes, fuel rods, and cooling systems to crack, corrode, bend, and malfunction.  Only then did the public create the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to regulate nuclear power facilities.

Munson lists quite a few problems, but you should search on “Nuclear Reactor Hazards  Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century” to get a real good understanding of the magnitude of failures despite regulation.  Indeed, even the Wall Street Journal was forced to admit at one point that reactor troubles “tell the story of projects crippled by too little regulation, rather than too much.”

Some of this stemmed from nuclear engineers seeing uranium as just a complicated way to boil water.  But a reactor is not simple, there are over 40,000 valves, the fuel rods reach temperatures over 4,800 F, and it isn’t easy to contain the nuclear reactions.

Management was poor as well, with Forbes magazine calling the U.S. nuclear program “the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale.”


Cooper, M. 2013. Renaissance in reverse: Competition pushes aging U.S. Nuclear reactors to the brink of economic abandonment. South Royalton: Vermont Law School.

O’Grady, E. 2008. Luminant seeks new reactor. London: Reuters.

Sovacool BK, Schmid P, Stirling A et al (2020). Differences in carbon emissions reduction between countries pursuing renewable electricity versus nuclear power. Nature energy 5: 928-935

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3 Responses to Nuclear reactor issues

  1. Eclipse says:

    Dr James Hansen’s *real* solution for climate change is nuclear power! Breeder reactors eat nuclear waste and can convert a 100,000 year storage problem into today’s clean energy solution. And unlike intermittent wind and solar (which are so unreliable they force us to burn large quantities of natural gas to back them up), nukes guarantee reliable clean power in the heart of the darkest, quietest European winter. They work 24/7, no matter the weather. So I’m with Dr Hansen when he says we should build 115 reactors per year to solve this crisis.
    On a reactors-to-GDP ratio this is actually *slower* than the rate at which the French *already* cleaned up their electricity in the 70’s. There’s nothing hypothetical about 115 reactors a year because France already deployed nuclear *faster* than this with older technologies. Modern reactors have the advantage of being mass produced on an assembly line! With ‘renewable’ uranium from seawater guaranteeing energy for a billion years, fission is what fusion wants to be: cheap, abundant, easy power: forever.

    You mentioned the cost of nuclear?
    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.”

    But tomorrow’s breeder reactors will come off the line cheaper than coal. While we can just build today’s nukes like the AP1000 as we perfect tomorrow’s breeders (like the Integral Fast reactor and Molten Salt Reactors), China’s taking leaps and bounds. China will mass produce breeder nukes cheaper than coal in just 6 years!

    Now, nukes make electricity only, right? Wrong. Electric cars are here, and are a growing part of the market. If we turn the power stations up to full… how much of the family car and light truck fleet could today’s power plants and grid charge? “For the United States as a whole, 84% of US cars, pickup trucks and SUVs could be supported by the existing infrastructure, ” said an NREL study.

    In other words, only the last 16% of family car and light truck vehicles will require more power stations.

    Now, heavy long-haul trucking requires diesel. No batteries can do that job yet! Introducing synthetic diesel from seawater. What high EROEI power source can suck CO2 out of seawater and combine it with hydrogen to make diesel? Why, nuclear, of course! And that nuclear power is costed into the price of the diesel, so as synthetic diesel grows, the nuclear power to run this industry will as well. Note: this is not part of the 115 GW per year nuclear build out to clean up electricity for the world. This will be extra nukes, and lots of them. But they scale with the synthetic diesel deployment. Remember, cars & light vehicles are electric, so the synthetic diesel is only replacing diesel, about half the liquid fuels use. I’ve discussed this plan with nuclear engineers that think thermal reactors would do the job more efficiently, using their heat directly, and it might take about a 1000 extra reactors. Paid for in the price of the diesel itself. If you don’t like synthetic diesel from water, what about recyclable boron powder as an energy carrier? Dr James Hansen says it’s a contender. Yes. Burning metal. Recyclable. Safer than diesel as well.

    Personally, I’m into new urbanism and the psychological and social benefits of ‘car disciplined’ societies. But with most family sized cars and even council buses and garbage trucks chargeable on today’s electric grid, and with both synthetic diesel and boron ready to fill in the other long-haul trucking needs, I really don’t see why so many people become doomers.