Yale Environment 360: Why Nuclear Power Must Be Part of the Energy Solution

In the late 16th century, when the increasing cost of firewood forced ordinary Londoners to switch reluctantly to coal, Elizabethan preachers railed against a fuel they believed to be, literally, the Devil’s excrement. Coal was black, after all, dirty, found in layers underground — down toward Hell at the center of the earth — and smelled strongly of sulfur when it burned. Switching to coal, in houses that usually lacked chimneys, was difficult enough; the clergy’s outspoken condemnation, while certainly justified environmentally, further complicated and delayed the timely resolution of an urgent problem in energy supply.

For too many environmentalists concerned with global warming, nuclear energy is today’s Devil’s excrement. They condemn it for its production and use of radioactive fuels and for the supposed problem of disposing of its waste. In my judgment, their condemnation of this efficient, low-carbon source of baseload energy is misplaced. Far from being the Devil’s excrement, nuclear power can be, and should be, one major component of our rescue from a hotter, more meteorologically destructive world.

Like all energy sources, nuclear power has advantages and disadvantages. What are nuclear power’s benefits? First and foremost, since it produces energy via nuclear fission rather than chemical burning, it generates baseload electricity with no output of carbon, the villainous element of global warming. Switching from coal to natural gas is a step toward decarbonizing, since burning natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide of burning coal. But switching from coal to nuclear power is radically decarbonizing, since nuclear power plants release greenhouse gases only from the ancillary use of fossil fuels during their construction, mining, fuel processing, maintenance, and decommissioning — about as much as solar power does, which is about 4 to 5 percent as much as a natural gas-fired power plant.

Nuclear power releases less radiation into the environment than any other major energy source.

Second, nuclear power plants operate at much higher capacity factors than renewable energy sources or fossil fuels. Capacity factor is a measure of what percentage of the time a power plant actually produces energy. It’s a problem for all intermittent energy sources. The sun doesn’t always shine, nor the wind always blow, nor water always fall through the turbines of a dam.

In the United States in 2016, nuclear power plants, which generated almost 20 percent of U.S. electricity, had an average capacity factor of 92.3 percent, meaning they operated at full power on 336 out of 365 days per year. (The other 29 days they were taken off the grid for maintenance.) In contrast, U.S. hydroelectric systems delivered power 38.2 percent of the time (138 days per year), wind turbines 34.5 percent of the time (127 days per year) and solar electricity arrays only 25.1 percent of the time (92 days per year). Even plants powered with coal or natural gas only generate electricity about half the time for reasons such as fuel costs and seasonal and nocturnal variations in demand. Nuclear is a clear winner on reliability.

Third, nuclear power releases less radiation into the environment than any other major energy source. This statement will seem paradoxical to many readers, since it’s not commonly known that non-nuclear energy sources release any radiation into the environment. They do. The worst offender is coal, a mineral of the earth’s crust that contains a substantial volume of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium. Burning coal gasifies its organic materials, concentrating its mineral components into the remaining waste, called fly ash. So much coal is burned in the world and so much fly ash produced that coal is actually the major source of radioactive releases into the environment.

Anti-nuclear activists protest the construction of a nuclear power station in Seabrook, New Hampshire in 1977. 

Anti-nuclear activists protest the construction of a nuclear power station in Seabrook, New Hampshire in 1977.  AP PHOTO

In the early 1950s, when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission believed high-grade uranium ores to be in short supply domestically, it considered extracting uranium for nuclear weapons from the abundant U.S. supply of fly ash from coal burning. In 2007, China began exploring such extraction, drawing on a pile of some 5.3 million metric tons of brown-coal fly ash at Xiaolongtang in Yunnan. The Chinese ash averages about 0.4 pounds of triuranium octoxide (U3O8), a uranium compound, per metric ton. Hungary and South Africa are also exploring uranium extraction from coal fly ash.

What are nuclear’s downsides? In the public’s perception, there are two, both related to radiation: the risk of accidents, and the question of disposal of nuclear waste.

There have been three large-scale accidents involving nuclear power reactors since the onset of commercial nuclear power in the mid-1950s: Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Chernobyl in Ukraine, and Fukushima in Japan.

Studies indicate even the worst possible accident at a nuclear plant is less destructive than other major industrial accidents.

The partial meltdown of the Three-Mile Island reactor in March 1979, while a disaster for the owners of the Pennsylvania plant, released only a minimal quantity of radiation to the surrounding population. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

“The approximately 2 million people around TMI-2 during the accident are estimated to have received an average radiation dose of only about 1 millirem above the usual background dose. To put this into context, exposure from a chest X-ray is about 6 millirem and the area’s natural radioactive background dose is about 100-125 millirem per year… In spite of serious damage to the reactor, the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment.”

The explosion and subsequent burnout of a large graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactor at Chernobyl in 1986 was easily the worst nuclear accident in history. Twenty-nine disaster relief workers died of acute radiation exposure in the immediate aftermath of the accident. In the subsequent three decades, UNSCEAR — the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, composed of senior scientists from 27 member states — has observed and reported at regular intervals on the health effects of the Chernobyl accident. It has identified no long-term health consequences to populations exposed to Chernobyl fallout except for thyroid cancers in residents of Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident, who drank milk contaminated with 131iodine, and who were not evacuated. By 2008, UNSCEAR had attributed some 6,500 excess cases of thyroid cancer in the Chernobyl region to the accident, with 15 deaths.  The occurrence of these cancers increased dramatically from 1991 to 1995, which researchers attributed mostly to radiation exposure. No increase occurred in adults.

The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, located near Avila Beach, California, will be decommissioned starting in 2024.

The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, located near Avila Beach, California, will be decommissioned starting in 2024. PACIFIC GAS AND ELECTRIC

“The average effective doses” of radiation from Chernobyl, UNSCEAR also concluded, “due to both external and internal exposures, received by members of the general public during 1986-2005 [were] about 30 mSv for the evacuees, 1 mSv for the residents of the former Soviet Union, and 0.3 mSv for the populations of the rest of Europe.”  A sievert is a measure of radiation exposure, a millisievert is one-one-thousandth of a sievert. A full-body CT scan delivers about 10-30 mSv. A U.S. resident receives an average background radiation dose, exclusive of radon, of about 1 mSv per year.

The statistics of Chernobyl irradiations cited here are so low that they must seem intentionally minimized to those who followed the extensive media coverage of the accident and its aftermath. Yet they are the peer-reviewed products of extensive investigation by an international scientific agency of the United Nations. They indicate that even the worst possible accident at a nuclear power plant — the complete meltdown and burnup of its radioactive fuel — was yet far less destructive than other major industrial accidents across the past century. To name only two: Bhopal, in India, where at least 3,800 people died immediately and many thousands more were sickened when 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant; and Henan Province, in China, where at least 26,000 people drowned following the failure of a major hydroelectric dam in a typhoon. “Measured as early deaths per electricity units produced by the Chernobyl facility (9 years of operation, total electricity production of 36 GWe-years, 31 early deaths) yields 0.86 death/GWe-year),” concludes Zbigniew Jaworowski, a physician and former UNSCEAR chairman active during the Chernobyl accident. “This rate is lower than the average fatalities from [accidents involving] a majority of other energy sources. For example, the Chernobyl rate is nine times lower than the death rate from liquefied gas… and 47 times lower than from hydroelectric stations.”

Nuclear waste disposal, although a continuing political problem, is not any longer a technological problem.

The accident in Japan at Fukushima Daiichi in March 2011 followed a major earthquake and tsunami. The tsunami flooded out the power supply and cooling systems of three power reactors, causing them to melt down and explode, breaching their confinement. Although 154,000 Japanese citizens were evacuated from a 12-mile exclusion zone around the power station, radiation exposure beyond the station grounds was limited. According to the report submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency in June 2011:

“No harmful health effects were found in 195,345 residents living in the vicinity of the plant who were screened by the end of May 2011. All the 1,080 children tested for thyroid gland exposure showed results within safe limits. By December, government health checks of some 1,700 residents who were evacuated from three municipalities showed that two-thirds received an external radiation dose within the normal international limit of 1 mSv/year, 98 percent were below 5 mSv/year, and 10 people were exposed to more than 10 mSv… [There] was no major public exposure, let alone deaths from radiation.”

Nuclear waste disposal, although a continuing political problem in the U.S., is not any longer a technological problem. Most U.S. spent fuel, more than 90 percent of which could be recycled to extend nuclear power production by hundreds of years, is stored at present safely in impenetrable concrete-and-steel dry casks on the grounds of operating reactors, its radiation slowly declining.

An activist in March 2017 demanding closure of the Fessenheim Nuclear Power Plant in France. Authorities announced in April that they will close the facility by 2020.

An activist in March 2017 demanding closure of the Fessenheim Nuclear Power Plant in France. Authorities announced in April that they will close the facility by 2020. SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

The U.S. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico currently stores low-level and transuranic military waste and could store commercial nuclear waste in a 2-kilometer thick bed of crystalline salt, the remains of an ancient sea. The salt formation extends from southern New Mexico all the way northeast to southwestern Kansas. It could easily accommodate the entire world’s nuclear waste for the next thousand years.

Finland is even further advanced in carving out a permanent repository in granite bedrock 400 meters under Olkiluoto, an island in the Baltic Sea off the nation’s west coast. It expects to begin permanent waste storage in 2023.

A final complaint against nuclear power is that it costs too much. Whether or not nuclear power costs too much will ultimately be a matter for markets to decide, but there is no question that a full accounting of the external costs of different energy systems would find nuclear cheaper than coal or natural gas.

Richard Rhodes is the author of numerous books, including the recently published Energy: A Human History, and is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Appearing as host and correspondent for documentaries on public television’s Frontline and American Experience series, he has also been a visiting scholar at Harvard, MIT, and Stanford University. MORE ABOUT RICHARD RHODES →

Original article.

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NPR: As Nuclear Struggles, A New Generation Of Engineers Is Motivated By Climate Change

from All Things Considered

by Jeff Brady

The number of people graduating with nuclear engineering degrees has more than tripled since a low point in 2001, and many are passionate about their motivation.

“I’m here because I think I can save the world with nuclear power,” Leslie Dewan told the crowd at a 2014 event as she pitched her company’s design for a new kind of reactor.

Dewan says climate change, and the fact that nuclear plants emit no greenhouse gases, are the big reason she became a nuclear engineer. And she is not the only one.

“The reason that almost all of our students come into this field is climate change,” says Dennis Whyte, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Read more

Department of Energy Announces 10 Projects to Support Advanced Nuclear Reactor Power Plants

ARPA-E provides up to $24 million for technologies to enable lower cost, safer advanced nuclear plant designs

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced up to $24 million in funding for 10 projects as part of a new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program: Modeling-Enhanced Innovations Trailblazing Nuclear Energy Reinvigoration (MEITNER). MEITNER teams will identify and develop innovative technologies that enable designs for lower cost, safer, advanced nuclear reactors.

“Nuclear energy is an essential component of the U.S. energy mix, and by teaming up with the private sector to reduce costs and improve safety, we are keeping America ahead of the curve in advanced reactor design and technology,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. “These next-generation ARPA‑E technologies help us maintain our competitive, technological edge globally, while improving the resilience of the grid and helping provide reliable, baseload electricity to each and every American.” Read more

CEM: Countries Launch a Nuclear Innovation Initiative under the Clean Energy Ministerial

PRESS RELEASE ON THE NICE FUTURE INITIATIVE

May 24, 2018 – At the 9th Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM9) meeting today, a new nuclear innovation partnership was announced under the leadership of the United States, Canada, and Japan. Called “Nuclear Innovation: Clean Energy Future (NICE Future),” the initiative will, for the first time, put the spotlight at CEM on nuclear energy in clean energy systems. U.S. Department of Energy Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette, Canadian Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources Kim Rudd, and Japanese Parliamentary Vice-Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Masaki Ogushi launched the NICE Future initiative today at the Ninth CEM in Copenhagen, Denmark.

NICE Future initiative will address improved power system integration through innovative, integrated, and advanced energy systems and applications, such as nuclear-renewable systems, combined uses of heat and power, hydrogen production, and industrial decarbonization. It will highlight the opportunities for nuclear energy technologies to reduce emissions and air pollution from power generation, industry, and end-use sectors. Read more

Neutron Bytes: DOE Awards $60M for Advanced Nuclear Energy R&D; France Ink Nuclear Collaboration with US

  • The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has selected 13 projects to receive approximately $60 million in federal funding for cost-shared research and development for advanced nuclear technologies.
  • These awards are the first under DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy’s U.S. Industry Opportunities for Advanced Nuclear Technology Developmentfunding opportunity announcement (FOA)
  • Subsequent quarterly application review and selection processes will be conducted over the next five years.
  • DOE intends to apply up to $40 million of additional FY 2018 funding to the next two quarterly award cycles for innovative proposals under this FOA.

The selected awards underscore the importance of the private-public partnerships engaged in by U.S. companies in order to share expertise needed to successfully develop innovative nuclear technologies.

Accelerating Advanced Reactors infographic-1200x900-01 Read more

HBS Op-Ed: Why Private Investors Must Fund ‘New Nuclear’ Power Right Now

by Joseph Lassiter

In June 2016, I gave a TED Talk called We Need Nuclear Power to Solve Climate Change. The talk discussed the world’s realistic options for reducing fossil CO2 emissions soon enough to contain climate change’s more severe effects. To my surprise, that talk has now been viewed more than 1.1 million times.

I have learned a lot from the many, many conversations that have emerged around the talk. Some of these conversations have made me hopeful, but most have made me realize how far we must go to meet society’s urgent need for both more energy and a cleaner environment. Solving either of these problems without solving the other may be a costly outcome, but it is not an informed choice. The world must have much better, low-cost, zero-carbon emission alternatives to meet the world’s urgent need for on-demand, around-the-clock power. And those alternatives need to be available now. Read more

Nikkei: Bill Gates and China spur development of next-generation reactors

BEIJING — The Chinese city of Cangzhou is known for its long tradition of martial arts mastery. If Bill Gates has his way, it will also be known as the birthplace of the nuclear power plant of the future.

TerraPower, a U.S. nuclear-reactor design company chaired by the Microsoft co-founder, is looking to build a new model called a traveling-wave reactor, or TWR, with state-owned China National Nuclear Corp.

The two entities set up a joint venture in November, answering Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s call for “breakthroughs through collective wisdom and international cooperation.”

Li said he hoped that a combination of advanced technology from the U.S. and “China’s rich talent resources” could make it happen.

Gates said the new nuclear technology is of great importance for the future development of energy and technology, ensuring a clean, safe and reliable energy supply.

“We are willing to turn common visions into reality with an open attitude,” he said at his November meeting with Li.

Read more

The Verge: Katsuko Saruhashi turned radioactive fallout into a scientific legacy

Today’s Google Doodle celebrates Japanese geochemist Katsuko Saruhashi, whose research helped reveal the insidious spread of radioactive fallout from the US nuclear testing ground in the Pacific. If she were still alive, today would have been her 98th birthday.

In 1957, Saruhashi became the first woman to receive a PhD in chemistry in Japan. Her work focused on measuring the molecules in seawater, like carbon dioxide, oxygen, and also radioactive molecules like cesium-137. Just 12 years before she received her PhD, the United States dropped atomic bombs that devastated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the US continued to unleash a torrent of radioactive fallout in the Pacific as it tested bigger and bigger bombs. By 1958, the US had exploded 67 nuclear devices around the Marshall Islands — leaving a long legacy of contamination behind.

Read more

MIT News: MIT’s big push on fusion

Researchers will work with industrial collaborators to pursue fusion as a source of carbon-free power.

Today, MIT announced plans to work with a newly formed company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), to realize the promise of fusion as a source of unlimited, safe, carbon-free energy. Zach Hartwig, an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering, is one of the Institute’s leads on the effort, along with others in MIT’s Plasma Fusion and Science Center (PSFC). He spoke with MIT News about the group’s vision for a fusion-powered future.

Q: Why is this new collaboration needed to support fusion energy?

A: Mitigating global climate change requires new sources of zero-carbon energy as soon as we can deliver them, and we are going to need a completely new approach to ensure that fusion energy can be a significant part of the solution.

The hard reality of climate change is that every single nation that has ever industrialized and made a better life for its citizens did so at the expense of the climate. There is, at present, simply no other way to do this than to dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels for energy.

As a global society, we have to do better. Fusion energy represents one tremendously attractive pathway, if we can demonstrate its potential and accelerate its commercial deployment. This is going to require new models of innovation that couple research institutions, such as MIT, with private companies, such as CFS, that are capable of commercializing fusion — and then providing that relationship with sustainable, patient capital that can fund the development of breakthrough energy solutions at scale.

Fusion is the fundamental energy source of the universe, powering our sun and the distant stars. The promise of harnessing fusion to produce energy on Earth is simple: limitless, safe, zero-carbon energy.

Like the governments of many nations, the U.S. has funded basic research on fusion science and technology since the 1950s, making tremendous progress toward the goal of fusion energy. MIT has long been a leading institution in fusion research, receiving research support primarily from the Department of Energy, including the funding of three major fusion energy experiments at MIT culminating in the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, which ended 25 years of operation in 2016. The DOE continues its support of fusion energy research at other facilities around the U.S. and the world, including the ITER experiment now under construction in France.

Read more

Nature: MIT launches multimillion-dollar collaboration to develop fusion energy

With corporate participation, researchers seek to build a pilot fusion-energy plant within 15 years.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge will work with a private firm to develop technology for producing energy from nuclear fusion within the next 15 years. If successful, the multimillion-dollar effort could help to unlock a virtually limitless source of pollution-free energy.

The approach — which has attracted US$50 million thus far — is based on high-temperature superconductors that have become commercially available in the past few years, the team announced on 8 March. The new generation of superconductors will allow the researchers from MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) in Cambridge to strengthen the magnetic field that contains the hot-plasma fuel used in conventional tokamak reactors. That could pave the way for reactors that are smaller, cheaper and easier to build than those based on previous designs, including the troubled international ITER project under development in southern France. Read more