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Saturday, 30 July 2011

10 Benefits of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy proponents are constantly put in the defensive mode when speaking or writing about nuclear energy.  I thought it's long overdue to come up with a short list of benefits from nuclear energy, not all entirely from nuclear power, that enhance our lives and enable technology that would otherwise never be possible. Some of these benefits require more explanation than I'm prepared to write so I will provide links to sources for more thorough coverage where necessary.

Many people react when I tell them I am a pro-nuclear Democrat.  They often say something about nuclear energy that I consider clich√© by now like "what about the waste?" or "nuclear is dangerous, why are you for that?".  This list is for them so they can explore the benefits of nuclear energy and discover that many of the most influential supporters of nuclear energy are indeed very liberal. Liberals are labeled as haters of nuclear energy especially by conservatives. This isn't true, of course, but more importantly as liberals, by the very definition of the term, we ought to be keeping an open mind to new ideas, ideas that sometimes necessitate tolerance while your comfort zone catches up the new information you may be processing.  Many people think they know a thing or two about nuclear energy; I thought I did. Researching, taking a college course, and studying nuclear energy over the years made me realize that what I thought I knew was nothing more than second-hand ignorance. If there is one thing a liberal minded person doesn't want to be; it is intentionally ignorant.  Thus is my challenge to all those who have dismissed nuclear energy in the past without much consideration to perform at least the mental exercise of understanding its benefits.Nuclear advocates ought to promote its benefits first and explain away the profit seeking and ego fulfilling detractors secondly. The nuclear advocacy community should be on a continuous mission to educate the public about the benefits of fission.  Some people don't want this education to spread. Fossil fuel companies and renewable energy advocates fear nuclear energy, not because of any physical threat it poses, but for the financial threat it poses to them.  From the 70's-80's, nuclear energy did quite a good job at indirectly eliminating almost all oil-fired electricity generation in the United States, only to have that largely supplanted by natural gas in the 1990's.  Nonetheless, nuclear fission proved that it could kick out a very significant fossil competitor out of the electricity market within 15 years. It did this in spite of all the hurtles of poor project management, cost over-runs, regulatory challenges, and some serious bruising of its public image.  In contrast, renewable energy has been given break after break with subsidies, incentives, grants and still hasn't managed to make a significant penetration into the market. A lot of people play the blame game as to why renewables haven't made a significant impact or they will define the terms so broadly to make the claim otherwise.  The reality is that dilute forms of energy require extremely large energy gathering apparatuses and thus the laws of physics can be very unkind to the laws of economics. Just so you know, I think renewables are fine in certain applications, but many harbor unrealistic expectations for what they can ultimately accomplish.Fission energy can certainly meet up to any what's-in-it-for-me challenge. In these grim economic times, people have good reasons to be skeptical. But I believe that nuclear energy, discovered and developed in the United States of America, can deliver these benefits if given the support and opportunity to do so. It will be a struggle, there will be growing and changing pains but ultimately we will be reinventing the energy civilization as we know it. So like David Letterman does, let's start at 10 and work our way down.

10.  Nuclear energy does not emit greenhouse gases.
In this time of urgency for clean energy, this is the first reason why many have converted their support to fission power. While all sources of energy emit some greenhouse gases during some part of their life cycle, nuclear emits ZERO during the generation of electricity.  Nuclear is a powerhouse when it comes to this performance aspect - 73% of our clean electricity comes from nuclear which holds only 10% of the total generating capacity. Within 10 years nuclear fission went from generating very little power in 1966 to meeting the same output of hydro generation in 1976.  In the next 11 years to 1987, nuclear doubled its output.  I think we could do considerably better development now than in the 70-80's period.  Much has been learned and developed since then in nuclear energy and the supporting technologies that were not even available during the initial growth period of nuclear energy.

9.  Nuclear energy creates high paying jobs that will stay in America.
Electricity factories stay put. The workers cannot be shipped overseas.  Many sleepy rural towns have grown into thriving prosperous communities all because of their local nuclear power plant.  There becomes a positive economic ripple effect in the surrounding area as demand for everyday goods and services increases. Nuclear workers are paid very well with some engineers earning over $90,000 per year.  As more high skilled workers move into an area this will often attract other high technology types of businesses.  The surrounding community will be in a better position to attract these new businesses with increased tax revenues from the nuclear plant as well.  The citizens of these communities can take great pride in contributing vast quantities of clean energy and being part of the global warming solution.  

8.  Nuclear energy is a vital component of our high technology economy.
Think nuclear is only good for generating electricity? Think again.  While a power generating facility is its own industry segment, other applications of nuclear technology can be thought of as close cousins that often require research type reactors in their supply chain.  Doctors use medical isotopes made in reactors to save lives everyday by detecting and treating disease.  Smoke alarms save lives and property everyday.  Food is made safe to eat by irradiation. Products and materials are sterilized. Nuclear technology is also used in mining and the aerospace industries.  Invasive insects can be eradicated using sterile insect technique.  There are other applications in security, academic and research applications to name a few more. For an interesting lecture on more diverse nuclear applications check out this video at MIT World.

7.  Nuclear energy is the most cost effective way to reduce CO2 emissions.
Here's a quote from NEI's website: "Nuclear plants are the lowest-cost producer of baseload electricity. The average production cost of 1.87 cents per kilowatt-hour includes the costs of operating and maintaining the plant, purchasing fuel and paying for the management of used fuel."  The current fleet of reactors in the USA produces enough clean energy every year that is equivalent to removing all the exhaust from our vehicles. Other impartial sources confirm similar low costs. Uvdiv at the Capacity Factor blog compiled a chart of different sources here.  Though production costs are different from life cycle costs figures, the bottom line is the same - nuclear is very cost effective and that's including all the externalizations.  This becomes more clear in conjunction with benefit #10.

6.  Nuclear energy provides affordable electricity.

While this is almost the same as benefit #7, the bill you pay is often what matters most and not its CO2 reductions. A person has little choice to no choice regarding the source of the electricity generated to their home or workplace.  To choose emission free energy, a person might choose solar and/or wind but these choices are limited in application and expensive. Because nuclear fuel is so dense it can withstand a lot of volatility without affecting overall costs very much. Prices are predominately dictated by fuel costs in the world of fossil fuels. In the nuclear realm, costs are focused on salaries and relatively small amounts on fuel.

5.  Nuclear energy is safe.
Commercial nuclear energy in the United States has zero deaths on its record. It can never blow up like a nuclear bomb. As for other accidental deaths due to radiation contamination, one could go back as far as the 1920's when workers who painted radium tinted paint onto watch dials for glow in the dark luminescence.  The Three Mile Island accident harmed no one and can be considered a success because the plant did what it was designed to do: contain and isolate any nuclear materials from the biosphere in case of an accident. It was an expensive lesson as the reactor was lost for good but the remaining reactor is safely operating today. With over 50 years of operation and thousands of reactor years of operation, the industry prides itself on an excellent safety record.  Radioactivity is a well understood form of energy and is easily controlled with simple principles of shielding, time and distance. Yes there have been other types of accidents but still no one has been harmed from commercial nuclear power operation in the United States. 

4.  Nuclear energy is sustainable for millions of years.
Some people may be under the impression that uranium is a rare metal.  It's not.  It's about as common as copper or tin and 40 times more common than silver. All nuclear reactors do some degree of "breeding", making new fissionable fuel, Plutonium-239, from the fertile fuel of Uranium-238 in addition to using slightly enriched uranium.  The power yield from this rises steadily to around 30% of the output as the fuel bundles remain critical in the reactor.  Reprocessing or recycling of the fuel elements can extend the life of the fuel a few times over.  Much greater fission fuel production can take place with breeder type reactors.  Thorium can also be used as fertile fuel in the LFTR reactor.  With a reactor such as LFTR with Thorium, it would be possible to power all of the Earth for millions of years.  In the meantime, there is plenty of uranium resources to supply many hundreds of new conventional light water reactors for many years to come. Uranium may also be extracted from seawater, though it is not economical to do so at this time.

3. Nuclear technology is flexible for many different applications.

Nuclear energy is but one facet of nuclear technology.  Special isotopes created in reactors can be used in aerospace, manufacturing, security, medicine and agriculture.  Without nuclear medicine many 100's of thousands of people would not be alive today.  Doctors depend on a steady supply of fresh special isotopes to do their work and save lives.  Recently the supply of these isotopes from Canada has become threatened. Food irradiation prevents contamination. Many products are sterilized in manufacturing with irradiation.  Deep space satellites that use a radioactive heat source help scientists discover new things about our universe. Nuclear energy can desalinate water.  Nuclear energy can power large ocean vessels.  Cleanly produced electricity from nuclear could power plasma arc waste disposal plants to keep our environment clean.  Nuclear fuel gets hot and stays hot for years, thereby allowing for a wide variety of reactor designs for different applications. We cannot afford to let our expertise fall behind in any of these areas if America wants to be a strong contributor to the 21st century global economy.

2. Nuclear energy is capable of providing greater energy independence.
It is important for all energy sources, not just nuclear, to put the qualifier "greater" before energy independence as striving for 100% energy independence just for the sake of being fully independent doesn't play out well with economic realities.  But to put a big dent in the money transfer for foreign oil, we will have to employ a very smart combination of bio and synthetic fuels, more efficient vehicles, more hybrid vehicles, better batteries, some electric vehicles, less highway congestion and more public transport, offset coal powered electric generation with nuclear generation, some coal to liquids using nuclear process heat, and increased domestic oil production.  In short, there is no easy fast fix but the more coal and gas that we take off the grid, then the more coal and gas will be available to power advanced and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles.  This will take decades but if we do not have a comprehensive plan to de-fossil our electric grid then that will lower the success factor of running cleaner vehicles as well. 

1. Nuclear energy is the densest form of usable energy known.

This is perhaps the least obvious benefit to the lay person but becomes more apparent as one gains a better understanding into the nature of energy. Denser forms of energy prevent energy sprawl.  Very little uranium needs to be mined to last a very long time and the mining footprint for uranium is tiny compared to oil, gas and coal. Dilute forms of energy like photovoltaic panels and wind turbines would require vast surface and land areas with the hope of gaining the same power output from one nuclear power plant.  The intermittency of renewable energy complicates grid reliability.  There are some 1500 coal fired boilers in the United States and it would only take about 200 new nuclear power plants to eliminate all of them.  As I've mentioned before on this blog, I am not against renewable energy but I believe it is a mistake to apply it for massive electricity generation for which it is not well suited.


  1. Only Nuclear energy is able to economically provide the base load required when our dependence on imported oil is weaned either because of politics or carbon caps. Let opponents imagine the day when no power comes out when they plug their electric cars to the wall. Renewable sources cannot match that demand.