Friday, January 05, 2007

Coal and Oil vs Nuclear

There's alively discussion about the pros and cons of nuclear energy and Indian Point going on here and here.

Being an engineer, I tend to focus on facts. Here are some facts provided by organizations that are not "pro-nuclear".

It is not a choice of wind, solar, and hydro instead of coal, oil, and nuclear. Renewables just won't cut it, no matter how much anti-nuclear folks wish it were true. The real choice is deciding how much coal and oil we want to off-set by nuclear. Here are some more facts (not even considering the global warming arguments):

  • Air pollution from burning coal in the USA causes 24,000 deaths per year, including 2,800 from lung cancer. The number is much higher in nations with lower emissions standards.
  • Over the last 10 years, coal mining deaths have averaged 33 deaths per year in the USA, and more than 6,000 per year in China.
  • In the entire history of the nuclear industry the total number of fatalities, even with highly inflated Chernobyl death estimates, is ~16,000 deaths.
  • Tons of uranium released to the atmosphere by coal plants in the USA: >800 tons per year.
  • Tons of uranium released to the atmosphere from nuclear plants in the USA: 0 tons per year.

Coal plants release 100's of times more radiation to the atmosphere than do nuclear plants. The coal and oil energy cycles claims thousands of times more lives per year than the nuclear fuel cycle.

Last week "hundreds" of people were burned alive when an oil pipeline caught fire. More than 1000 people have died there in the past year from similar pipeline fires. Outside of Nigeria (where it occurred) no one seems to care. It was but a blip on the media's radar screen. However, if a trashcan catches fire in a nuclear plant, it's an international event, even if no one is injured!

To me the answer is a "no brainer." That's why I choose to work in the nuclear industry. If I didn't believe in it I would take my engineering degree and 25 years of experience elsewhere.




Anonymous said...

er, but there is some waste to be disposed of. Any comment on that?

John Wheeler said...

Thanks for the comment!

True, there is used nuclear fuel to deal with, and a small fraction of the used fuel is non-fuel byproducts - "waste."

More than 90% of the available energy remains in used nuclear fuel with the open fuel cycle. Once we switch to the closed fuel cycle (that's underway) the volume of non-fuel byproducts will be a small fraction of the total and can be easily dealt with a number of ways. Those byproducts include a number of very useful exotic materials that have a lot of value.

In the end, the true "waste" that needs to be stored is a much smaller volume than the current models show, and the half-life of the non-fuel waste is shorter than the fissile portion of the used fuel.

It all comes down to the question: "Do you want the hazardous waste products from electricity generation in a place you can contain and keep safe, or do you want it spread all over the earth in the air, in the water, and in the food we eat?"

I vote for the "contain and keep safe" approach.

Anonymous said...


I read this just now... Any insight would be appreciated...

About 400 boxes of records from the Mound nuclear weapons plant in Miamisburg [OH] were buried in 2005 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The records, which tested positive for radioactive contamination, were declared a health threat and had little overall value, officials with the U.S. Department of Energy said.



Tom P said...

The Washington Post recently ran a story which stated the usual canard that spent fuel will remain radioactive for "a million years". Those kinds of large numbers are usually presented whenever nuclear waste is discussed.

The UIC has a graph which shows, for reprocessed fuel, the fission products decay to a level of radioactivity equal to uranium ore in about 600 years. If you include in the actinides, the time frame is something less than 10,000 years. Now, 10,000 years is still a long time, but its certainly not "a million" years.

But that is for reprocessed fuel. Do you have any information for how long the radioactivity of unreprocessed spent fuel remains above uranium ore?

Peter said...

Regarding nuclear waste, 98% of what comes out of a PWR isn't waste at all, but rather it is valuable fuel that can be readily burned in a fast spectrum reactor. The waste from these reactors (after fuel recycling) has a half life of about 30 years and will be of no environmental consequence after about 400 yrs.; a lenth of time which is easily within the reach of todays bio-isolation technology. For a comprehensive treatment of this fuel cycle see Scientific American Dec. 2005 "A Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste".

A more immediate though less thorough re-use of PWR used fuel is the DUPIC fuel cycle. DUPIC is an acronym for Direct Use of spent PWR fuel In CANDU reactors. In this process, spent PWR fuel, which still contains greater that 1% U235, is decladded, crushed, and reformed into new fuel pellets for direct use in the CANDU Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor. Because CANDU is designed to run on natural uranium fuel (0.7% U235), it's greater core diameter, more efficient heavy water coolant and moderator, and overall greater neutron economy, enable it to burn "spent" light water PWR fuel quite well. The Koreans, who have a mixed fleet of PWRs and CANDUs have been developing and refining this fuel cycle for some time in an effort to achieve higher total fuel burnup and reduced waste stream. Net result, lower costs, less waste, greater use of valuable uranium resources.

Anonymous said...

Making radioactive waste safe in just decades... I have a couple of links here with more info...


Stewart Peterson said...


The process described at that link is totally bogus, not to be confused with the real technology available today (fast-spectrum reactors like IFR) that would allow us to cut the storage time to 300 years. The only thing I can think of that would do something like what is mentioned at the link is ionization--but that's not what he's talking about and it would increase the half-life, not decrease it. Plus, it wouldn't work for the material he's using.

Anonymous said...

Here some good news...

$10 million will be used for 11 commercial and public consortia selected to conduct detailed siting studies for integrated spent fuel recycling facilities