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Nuclear Energy

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A major limitation of renewable energy such as solar and wind is that the sun isn't always shining and the wind isn't always blowing. This has led some people to conclude that nuclear is the only major alternative to fossil fuel to meet base load demands. Some advocates of renewable energy argue that renewables can in fact meet base-load demands through a combination of energy storage technologies, less intermittent renewable energy such as geothermal, and distributed generation.
A common argument used by opponents of nuclear energy is that a significant amount of coal is required in the overall process of producing nuclear energy. This argument is not treated seriously by nuclear advocates, partly on the basis that the amount of fossil fuel energy used in the process is a tiny fraction of the amount of energy produced, and furthermore that there is nothing about the process that requires that energy input to be based on fossil fuels.
Nuclear fusion is the fusion of smaller nuclei into large ones, releasing huge amounts of energy in the process. It occurs naturally in stars such as our Sun and synthetically in hydrogen bombs. Scientists and engineers are tantalized by the possibility of harnessing this energy in a sustained controlled reaction, since the fuel source is practically infinite. So far, attempts have consumed more energy than they have produced, but several research reactors are underway.
For nuclear power to be safe against terrorists, the nuclear reactors must be guarded, and the waste must be securely transported and stored.
Nuclear energy has safety challenges with respect to avoiding reactor meltdown, transporting and storing nuclear waste, and mitigating terrorist threats.
Nuclear energy is potentially economically competitive with other major current sources of energy. Compared with coal plants, the cheapest of all energy sources, nuclear plants have a lower fuel cost but a higher initial capital cost. However, certain factors make such comparisons more difficult - with nuclear additional costs are incurred from decommissioning plants and waste disposal, while with coal, additional costs may be incurred due to carbon taxation or dealing with climate change.
The cost-benefit analysis of nuclear power is complex. Its primary benefit compared with fossil fuels is that it is carbon free. Its primary benefit compared with alternative energy is that it has proven to scale effectively, with approximately 15% of the world's electricity coming from nuclear energy today. Its primary drawback is its safety concerns, including reactor safety, waste disposal, and nuclear proliferation.
Thorium is an alternative nuclear fuel to uranium. Its advantages are that it's more abundant than uranium and nuclear reactors based on thorium produce less waste. Research and development in thorium energy has rekindled in recent years driven by the need for a safe alternative to fossil fuels.
Yucca mountain, Nevada, is a site selected by the US Government as the single storage site for nuclear waste in the country. Despite extensive geological research, intense debate remains over whether the site is suitable. In the meantime, nuclear waste is building up at each of the 104 nuclear power stations throughout the country.
Bill Gates
If you compare it to the amount that coal has killed per kilowatt hour [nuclear] is way, way less. When an accident does occur, however, its effects are much more visible. Coal kills fewer people at one time, which is highly preferred by politicians.
John Large
The thorium reactors don't really work. They're very challenging. It's a whole new fuel technology which has considerable and insurmountables problems in my opinion. They would have problems in developing the processing cycle - the way in which you split the fuel from the waste from the reactor. They would have difficulties in actually storing the fuel.
Donald Trump
We have to be very concerned. [I'm] very strongly in favor of nuclear energy. You know, it's sort of interesting. Somebody was explaining if a plane goes down, people keep flying. If you get into an auto crash, people keep driving. There are problems in life. Not everything is so perfect. You have to look very carefully, though, at really taking care; have the best, the best people in terms of safeguards for nuclear energy. But we do need nuclear energy, and we need a lot of it fast.
World Nuclear Association
Environmentalists have played a valuable role in warning that catastrophic climate change is a real and imminent danger. It is crucially important that they be equally realistic about solutions. Even with maximum conservation - and a landscape covered by solar panels and windmills- we would still need large-scale source of around-the-clock electricity to meet much of our energy needs.
Kirk Sorensen
When it is pointed out to renewables advocates that their plan to use grid resources when mother nature fails to cooperate in the production of renewable generated electricity, they fall back on energy storage. ... All energy storage schemes are ... so expensive that when the cost of the storage system and redundant generating capacity required to produce the energy to be stored, the cost of carbon free renewable systems almost invariably turns out to be higher than the cost of nuclear power.
Caroline Lucas
[The government is] very successfully pulling the wool over people's eyes over whether or not we need nuclear. The bottom line is there are much greater, safer, quicker, cheaper ways of achieving greater emission cuts than going down the nuclear route. Plus the signal that it gives out internationally is an incredibly negative one.
Edison Electric Institute
While our industry is making very major strides in expanding energy efficiency and the use of renewables, we’ll still have to add new baseload generation capacity to help meet the growth in demand for electricity. As we intensify the transition to a low-carbon future, we will need to have all generation options on the table, including advanced new nuclear, advanced clean coal with carbon capture and storage, as well as natural gas.
Jon Wellinghoff
We may not need any [nuclear plants], ever. ... I think baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism. ... Baseload capacity really used to only mean in an economic dispatch, which you dispatch first, what would be the cheapest thing to do. Well, ultimately wind's going to be the cheapest thing to do, so you'll dispatch that first.

New Comments

1 Point       Corey Barcus       14 Feb 2012     Can renewables meet base-load energy demands? Neutral
Global energy need (consider the prevalence of poverty) is on the scale of tens of terawatts (currently ~13 TW). As renewable systems are scaled up, they become more expensive because of their dependence upon the distribution system (a significant cost passed on to consumers) to make up for their intermittency. Additionally, they are inefficient at producing many of the chemicals we require at an industrial scale. Even if solar panels progress to the point where they have reached their maximum theoretical efficiency (I hope they do) with zero cost, the environmental impact will be enormous unless installation is limited. We need to be asking how we can make clean energy cheaper so that more people can use it, rather than trying to make dirty legacy energy more expensive. Taxing carbon without having a comparable or cheaper alternative is just going to spread economic instability.

The most reasonable way to achieve global energy demand for cheap electricity generation, fuel/fertilizer/material synthesis, desalination, and eventually carbon sequestration is to pursue those technologies that are theoretically capable of producing the most energy at the lowest cost while being clean. There turns out to be very few candidates worth looking at. One of those is LFTR/MSR, a liquid-fueled nuclear fission reactor that operates at high temperature and low pressure, providing safe and highly efficient energy at the cost and abundance we require for solving problems related to sustainability. These machines would not need to be placed near water sources (lakes, rivers, aquifers, shorelines), unless for example water feedstock was required for synthesis, desalination, or manufacturing. The superior waste profile of thorium (compared to uranium) significantly reduces the quantity of material required to be sequestered in long-term storage (Yucca Mountain). But technical challenges remain, which is why it would be smart for us to aggressively join the international competition for energy development, the so-called Thorium Race, in a bid to secure our future. The rumor is that China is already putting $100 million annually into MSR development, picking up where we left off decades ago- they top the visitor list over at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Our future is waiting for us, but it won't wait forever.

0 Points       AshleyAnderson       20 Oct 2011     Is thorium a viable energy source for the future? Agree
Thorium is an alternative nuclear fuel to uranium. Its advantages are that it's more abundant than uranium and nuclear reactors based on thorium produce less waste. Research and development in thorium energy has rekindled in recent years driven by the need for a safe alternative to fossil fuels. you can get more information here: http://www.nuclearfriendsfoundation.com

2 Points       Casey Stimson       09 May 2011     Is thorium a viable energy source for the future? Agree
There is long standing studies being done on thorium, with Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, the fuel of the future is here. Here is a link to a video lecture done by Kirk Sorensen, an aerospace engineer and nuclear physicist.


1 Point       Benja       27 Apr 2011     Is thorium a viable energy source for the future? Agree
"Yet funding continues to go toward Uranium-based nuclear energy, mainly because Uranium-based atomic power integrates well with our nuclear weapons program..."

That was an incentive in the early days of nuclear technology and up to the end of the cold war. But that's not true today, with the US's arsenal of nuclear weapons that can still destroy the world many times over, a huge stockpile of plutonium, and 104 power plants still producing more plutonium than they know what to do with. The reluctance is due to other factors, perhaps the overarching one that it's a nightmare to push any new nuclear technology through congress.

1 Point       PJ Lamberty       26 Apr 2011     Is thorium a viable energy source for the future? Mostly Agree
China and India are currently pursuing Thorium technology as a cleaner, safer energy source. Oak Ridge National Labs had a working model of a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) which produced energy for seven years before it was decommissioned due to a lack of funding. This technology has been proven. Additionally, the Thorium cycle does not produce Plutonium. Yet funding continues to go toward Uranium-based nuclear energy, mainly because Uranium-based atomic power integrates well with our nuclear weapons program, (even though we are trying to disarm and deter proliferation).

0 Points       Benja       12 Apr 2011     Can renewables meet base-load energy demands? Mostly Disagree
This is a critical question, because it seems nuclear energy makes sense if and only if renewables cannot meet base load demands. At this point I'm reasonably convinced renewables are indeed hard to scale, so I'll advocate building modern nuclear power stations unless new facts or arguments suggesting otherwise come to my attention.

0 Points       Benja       12 Mar 2011     Is nuclear energy safe enough to justify its use? General Comment
It's disheartening when greens promote their "nuclear is always bad" dogma at every opportunity, especially when nuclear power is arguably the best solution we have to solve the Global Warming problem.

In the case of Japan's nuclear incident, some green politicians are blatantly misinforming the public, saying the Fukushima plants are of the "most advanced technology" available. A basic Wikipedia check shows the Fukushima plants were built in the 1970s.

Interesting blogging heads talk on Fukushima here.

0 Points       Benja       12 Mar 2011     Should the world embrace nuclear energy? Mostly Agree
There are three broad energy trajectories (mixtures possible):

1) Continue to use fossil fuels and risk fucking up the planet with millions dying from natural disasters such as floods.
2) Move to renewable energy (and away from fossil fuels, but underinvest in nuclear) and risk fucking up the economy with millions dying from famines and political turmoil.
3) Move to nuclear energy and risk fucking up some cities with thousands or even millions dying from a terrorist acquiring nuclear material.

The utilitarian answer should be to choose the least awful option. Conservatives tend to deny trajectory 1 is a reality. Greens tend to deny trajectory 2 is a reality. As a nuclear advocate, I believe trajectory 3 is a reality, but I think it's a possibly a better reality than trajectories 1 and 2. Some nuclear advocates believe good nuclear designs can mitigate the risks of trajectory 3. I hope they're right. It's unthinkable what could happen if extremists could get their hands on some plutonium.

What will actually happen? Politicians won't allow trajectory 2 to occur (i.e. we'll move to renewables to some extent, but not the point it severely hurts the economy). They will to some extent move towards trajectory 3 (i.e. we'll build more nuclear power plants), but if a big enough nuclear incident happens, they'll be forced back into trajectory 1.


Some data now in here:

"The poll, which was conducted by GFK NOP shows a drop of 12% in support for nuclear power to 35% compared with a similar poll conducted by IPSOS MORI in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Opposition to the technology rose 9% to 28%."

1 Point       Benja       12 Mar 2011     Is thorium a viable energy source for the future? Agree
"The People’s Republic of China has initiated a research and development project in thorium molten-salt reactor technology". More here.

Is China going to beat the US on clean energy? The senators Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid have tried to sell the merits of using thorium energy to the US government with little success. Steven Chu (the Energy Secretary of the US) was asked about thorium nuclear power research here. His answer seems to be that "normal" (i.e. uranium) based designs are sufficient (perhaps he's right - 4th gen designs are pretty good). OTOH I worry that the lobbyists for nuclear energy want to promote their (uranium based) plant designs, and don't want the competition.

0 Points       blacktrance       11 Feb 2011     Should the world embrace nuclear energy? Agree
It's efficient, cheap (compared to solar and wind), and doesn't need to be bought from the volatile Middle East.

0 Points       robert_steinhaus       07 Nov 2010     Does nuclear energy require a significant amount of fossil fuel? Disagree
I think the answer provided is applicable to the question "Does nuclear energy require a significant amount of fossil fuel?”
Because Thorium Fuel Cycle implemented in LFTR reactors has no requirement for mining activities (the mining for rare earths for renewable energy and defense applications will provide ample supplies of Thorium for power generation) and the fact that Thorium requires no enrichment step (which is responsible for generating most of the CO2 footprint for nuclear if coal is used to supply the electricity used in the enrichment process) then Thorium based nuclear energy is the most advantageous and lowest carbon footprint approach to nuclear power generation. Thorium is the most sustainable form of nuclear energy and has the lowest carbon footprint. I am merely showcasing the fact that Thorium Fuel Cycle, one form of nuclear energy production, has the lowest fossil fuel impact and the smallest (net negative) carbon footprint of any form of nuclear power generation.
Furthermore, since LFTRs are significantly smaller for a given power output rating and require less cement and steel to build relative to Light Water Reactors or Sodium Cooled Reactors alternatives. And if magnesium silicate cement is used to build the underground containment building for a new LFTR and a Supercritical CO2 Brayton Cycle turbine generator which uses CO2 as its working fluid is used to transform the heat produced by the reactor into electricity, then from an overall system standpoint, the Thorium LFTR is net carbon negative (building each LFTR has the direct net effect of reducing CO2 in the atmosphere). It can be responsibly proposed that the observed worldwide increase in average CO2 concentration in the atmosphere can be mitigated by building a sufficient number of Thorium LFTR reactors. Just building the LFTRs will reduce CO2 in the atmosphere without ever turning the reactors on. Of course, fueling the LFTRs with Thorium, and replacing the production of electricity from coal, which eliminates the production of 7 million tons of CO2 per Gigawatt-year of energy output, will have an even better result from a CO2 remediation standpoint and will also have the advantage of producing abundant quantities of cheap, clean electrical energy.

1 Point       Anonymous       06 Nov 2010     Does nuclear energy require a significant amount of fossil fuel? Disagree
The argument hinges on making three assumptions:
1) that the nuclear power plant requires enriched uranium (not true for all reactors but it is true for the majority of existing reactors)
2) that the enrichment process is the old gaseous diffusion process. The newer centrifuge process is much more energy efficient. Most of the old gas diffusion plants are closed or expected to close - they can't compete economically with the newer plants.
3) that coal is the energy source to produce the electricity used in enrichment. Half-true today but if the topic is consideration of transitioning to a mostly nuclear powered electricity grid then it would no longer be true at all.

Several fourth generation reactors (like LFTR, IFR, and TerraPower will not require enrichment once they have been started. In addition, they require dramatically less (100x) mining.

New Editorial Comments

0 Points       Benja       06 Nov 2010     Does nuclear energy require a significant amount of fossil fuel? Editorial Comment
Note: This comment is more applicable to the question Is thorium a viable energy source for the future?.

0 Points       Benja       09 Sep 2008     Is Yucca mountain the best place to store nuclear waste? Editorial Comment
Additional ideas for related questions:

1) A question regarding should the US reprocess waste
2) A question regarding shipping waste overseas (e.g. france ships waste to russia)

0 Points       Benja       03 Sep 2008     Is nuclear energy safe enough to justify its use? Editorial Comment
This MIT study is very informative & authorative: http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/

It identifies the various aspects of safety:

*reactor safety
*the continuing availability of trained personnel for nuclear operations
*the threat of terrorist attack
*nuclear fuel cycle safety, including nuclear fuel reprocessing
*dealing with waste

TODO: Each of these separate aspect of safety is a question, each being an implication of the general question: "Is nuclear energy safe"?.

Nuclear Energy Question Index

Is nuclear energy safe enough to justify its use?
Is thorium a viable energy source for the future?
Should the world embrace nuclear energy?
Can renewables meet base-load energy demands?
Is nuclear energy safe enough w/ respect to terrorist threats?
Is nuclear energy safe enough w/ respect to waste management?
Does nuclear energy require a significant amount of fossil fuel?
Is Yucca mountain the best place to store nuclear waste?
Is fusion power feasible as the next major energy source?
Can nuclear power be economically competitive with other major energy sources?