Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

“Stop the Nuclear Bailout”

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There’s been a lot of activity in the online nuclear advocacy and anti-nuclear communities in recent days, surrounding a video titled “Stop the Nuclear Bailout“, produced by ; featuring a number of well known, and quite talented, musicians speaking out in opposition to plans for a nuclear energy renaissance in the United States.

The Nuclear Energy Institute quickly picked up this issue, with their own YouTube-hosted rebuttal, featuring NEI’s manager for economic policy, Elizabeth King.

Clearly a person in this position knows far more about the issue of the economics of the commercial nuclear energy industry than most of us, including the details of the loan guarantees that are at the center of this controversy.

Nuclear industry economists like King certainly know more than I do, on this aspect of the nuclear energy industry, and I’m fairly confident that they have a good deal more expertise than our musician friends.

Many advocates of nuclear energy have spoken out in response to this video, including a nice little point-by-point rebuttal here, and an excellent presentation from my friend Rod Adams, discussing the virtues of nuclear energy systems.

All these responses have been delivered in the same YouTube format – this easily accessible video medium is clearly an interesting and useful medium for advocacy and education.

Now, to consider the specific points made in the original video, with a view to countering them:

The main concern that we’re seeing here is the provision for loan guarantees from the Department of Energy, providing security for investors in clean energy projects.

Allow me to quote the following, from the DOE:

“Title XVII of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (Title XVII or the Act). Title XVII authorizes the Secretary of Energy (Secretary) to make loan guarantees for projects that “avoid, reduce, or sequester air pollutants or anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases; and employ new or significantly improved technologies as compared to commercial technologies in service in the United States at the time the guarantee is issued.”

Does the use of nuclear energy avoid the use of greenhouse-gas-intensive forms of energy generation? You bet it does.

For further details on the DOE’s loan guarantee program, click here.

It must be noted that these guarantees are available to all energy projects that fit into the above criteria – solar, wind, or geothermal energy projects, along with nuclear energy.

These guarantees are not a handout or a subsidy – they simply provide a safety net, if you will, to investors in case of failure of the project.

Funnily enough, the most common cause of cancellation of nuclear energy projects is not that it is intrinsically uneconomical, or nuclear accidents, or anything like that – it’s pressure from these anti-nuclear groups.

These loan guarantees aren’t necessary to protect investors in nuclear energy from nuclear accidents, real or imagined, or failure of nuclear energy utilities to sell their sought after product, clean electrical energy. The single biggest thing that these guarantees have to protect against is the anti-nuclear-energy activism groups.

Our musician friends seem to contend that nuclear energy in the United States “hasn’t worked for fifty years“. I find this a little hard to believe, since nuclear energy provides 20 percent of US electricity supply. This technology, this commercial enterprise, has been proven – it has proven itself – over the last fifty years, as a effective, workable, clean and safe source of electrical energy.

That’s the answer we find, from direct appeal to empirical observation. In practice, when whole-of-life-cycle analysis is used, nuclear energy presents a greenhouse gas emissions profile which is comparable to clean energy systems such as wind energy and hydroelectricity, and quite superior to energy-intensive photovoltaic cells.

Whilst several lives were lost in an accident involving the US Army’s experimental SL-1 nuclear reactor, all the way back in 1961, in the early days of nuclear technology, and in 1986 at a Kerr-McGee uranium processing plant in Gore, Oklahoma, a worker died after inhalation of uranium hexafluoride – which is highly toxic chemically due to its fluoride content, not due to its relatively low degree of radioactivity, or uranium content.

This one, single case is one of the only cases of death that can be identified over the entire history of commercial, civilian nuclear energy, and the accompanying nuclear fuel cycle, in the United States.

Whilst the SL-1 incident was arguably a disastrous accident involving a nuclear power reactor, it was in 1961, quite early days in the history of nuclear power reactor engineering. Three reactor operators tragically lost their lives in this incident.

Here’s an interesting little article I found on the health hazards of wind turbines.

“I reported in Wind Energy comes of Age a mortality rate of 0.27 deaths per TWh. However, the mortality rate was higher than I reported then. I had missed several accidents that I learned of later.

In the mid-1990s the mortally rate was actually 0.4 per TWh. The worldwide mortality rate dropped more than half to 0.15 deaths per TWh by the end of 2000.

One half of the deaths have occurred on or around turbines of the size typically installed during the great California wind boom of the mid-1980s. Still, 7 have been killed working with larger turbines.

Tragically, at least 3 people have been killed working with small turbines. These deaths dramatically skew the mortality rate because small turbines account for a minuscule amount of worldwide wind generation.

The preponderance of those killed worldwide were Americans; 12 U.S. citizens, and one Canadian. Germany, despite the phenomenal growth of it wind industry since 1990, has one of the lowest mortality rates of the four nations where deaths have occurred, 0.07 deaths per TWh.”

So, Germany’s lowest mortality rate in the wind energy industry has been 0.07 deaths per TWh.

The Oconee nuclear generating station in South Carolina in the United States has, over its lifetime, generated over 500 TWh of electricity. If this nuclear power plant had a similar rate of death associated with it, we would expect that, over its history, the Oconee station, has, by itself, killed 35 people.

In fact, it has killed nobody. What conclusion can we draw from this, other than that nuclear energy is quite simply many times safer than wind energy generation?

Other arguments put forward by our musician friends include claims that nuclear waste must be transported across the country, and that this is unacceptably dangerous, and that there is no solution for the long-term disposal of radioactive wastes, which they claim will remain dangerous for 280,000 years.

Some anti-nuclear energy groups claim that used nuclear fuel, or radioactive waste from the processing of it, will need to be isolated from the environment for thousands of years, some say hundreds of thousands of years, some say 240,000 years and some say 500,000 years.

It certainly seems that there is certainly no consistent, scientific basis where these conclusions about nuclear waste are being drawn from.

Each shipping cask (Type B radioactive materials transport containers) used for the shipment of used nuclear fuel is designed to maintain its integrity under normal transportation conditions and during hypothetical accident conditions.

Since 1965, approximately 3,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel have been transported safely over the U.S.’s highways, waterways, and railroads.

Over the past 35 years, the British nuclear energy and nuclear fuel reprocessing industry has conducted over 14000 shipments of used nuclear fuel in such casks, worldwide, transporting more than 9,000 tonnes of used fuel over 16 million miles via road, rail, and sea without any radiological release. A similar story applies to the nuclear fuel cycle in France.

In the USA, the acceptability of the design of each cask is judged against Title 10, Part 71, of the Code of Federal Regulations. The designs must demonstrate protection against radiological release to the environment under all four of the following hypothetical accident conditions, designed to encompass 99% of all accidents.:

  • A 9 meter (30-foot) free fall on to an unyielding surface
  • A puncture test allowing the container to free-fall 1 meter (about 37 inches) onto a steel rod 15 centimeters (about 6 inches) in diameter
  • A 30-minute, all-engulfing fire at 800 degrees Celsius (1475 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • An 8-hour immersion under 0.9 meter (3 feet) of water.
  • Further, an undamaged package must be subjected to a one-hour immersion under 200 meters (655 feet) of water.

Such scenarios involving radioactive materials transport casks are empirically put to the test, in conjunction with computer modelling.

Details of the DOE’s radioactive materials transportation safety programs, chiefly operated out of the Sandia national laboratory, can be found here, here and here.


Written by Luke Weston

October 15, 2007 at 11:07 am

One Response

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  1. I don’t know whether you caught it, but I have taken on the comparison of deaths due to wind and nuclear using the reference that you cite, in particular the database of deaths from the wind industry.

    My analysis is an extrapolation (and thus mostly worthless) of the consequences, in human lives, of the wind industry and the nuclear industry that result from producing the same amount of energy — and thus is an “apple-to-apple” comparison, unlike what you would get from greens or musicians — using the very limited amount of data that is available, including Chernobyl.

    I have scrutinized Gipe’s database and thrown out what I considered to be untrustworthy, limiting myself to only the data (i.e., deaths) in the US wind industry after 1989 and before 2006. The result? The two industries are comparable in carnage, with wind resulting in a slightly higher body count. Keep in mind, however, that this includes Chernobyl, which is really unfair to the nuclear industries outside of the old Soviet Union.

    Sure, my numbers for the wind industry are highly (even ridiculously) speculative, but they are no more speculative or ridiculous than the way that the Linear No-Threshold hypothesis has been applied and abused, often in ways that totally defy common sense.


    October 15, 2007 at 6:36 pm

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