The Case for Nuclear Energy

Nuclear is Probably Necessary:

Many engineers firmly believe that decarbonizing the economy is an insurmountable challenge without the utilization of nuclear energy. Furthermore, the prevailing consensus among them suggests that the cost of achieving this goal without nuclear energy would be significantly higher. Therefore, it appears that we are left with limited alternatives if we genuinely intend to address the issue of global warming.

The Battery Problem

Some figures:

  • World electricity consumption: 3,000 Gw = 3 Tw

  • Global capacity of EV batteries: 1,000 GwH
  • Global capacity of grid batteries: 200 GwH
  • Global capacity of consumer batteries: 400 GwH

  • Total batteries: 1.6 TwH

  • Total backup time: (1.6 Tw / 3 TwH) * 60 = 32 minutes
  • Additional considerations:

    • The global increase in electricity consumption is expected to be substantial as developing countries progress economically.
    • Practical implementation of using electric vehicle (EV) batteries to support the grid is challenging since EV owners typically prioritize maintaining a full charge for their vehicles' usage.
    • The transition from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric cars will add contribute to a rise in electricity demand.
    • Shifting industrial processes from fossil fuel reliance to electricity-based systems will further strain the power grid, which currently accounts for only 20% of global energy consumption.

    Expanding hydroelectric power faces limitations as most suitable valleys have already been dammed, and concerns related to environmental impact hinder further dam construction. Geothermal energy remains viable only in specific locations. Thus, if we aim for a grid with zero carbon emissions and no nuclear energy, it will primarily rely on wind and solar power. However, this necessitates a considerably larger capacity for battery storage than the current 32-minute average to provide backup during calm nights and calm, cloudy weeks.

    News reports frequently highlight "new battery technologies" that claim to revolutionize the field. However, many of these developments fail to materialize as significant advancements. Achieving economically feasible grid-scale storage capable of supporting a stable and reliable zero-nuclear, zero-carbon grid would require an unforeseen and significant technical breakthrough.

    While it is crucial to invest in battery research and development, it is prudent not to rely solely on this avenue for solutions.

    The conventional nuclear power plants we have employed thus far, characterized by large light-water reactors, tend to be more expensive per kilowatt-hour compared to alternative energy sources. Additionally, their construction process is prone to slipped schedules and major cost overruns, particularly in the United States (although other countries have experienced more favorable outcomes). Nonetheless, there are promising next-generation designs that aim to overcome these challenges.

    Getting International Buy-In

    Any solution aiming to decarbonize the economy through renewables and batteries encounters a significant challenge. The cost of achieving reliable, 24/7/365 power using such a solution is likely to be considerably higher than obtaining energy from fossil fuels.

    While we may attempt to persuade wealthy nations to make this sacrifice based on moral grounds, it is unrealistic to expect poorer countries to afford the same approach. They will prioritize acquiring the cheapest available energy, regardless of its environmental impact.

    There is a possibility, although not guaranteed, that some form of next-generation nuclear power could be more cost-effective than fossil fuels. This is not a feat that can be accomplished with wind, solar, and batteries alone. If a zero-carbon energy technology is developed that is genuinely cheaper than fossil fuels, it will be considerably easier to encourage global adoption without relying on impractical global treaties that are near-impossible to form and even harder to enforce..

    Meltdown-Proof Nuclear Reactors

    Some reactors that are planned dissolve the fuel in molten salt. At the bottom of the container of the molten salt is a drain with a "Freeze Plug" in it.

    In the event of any overheating within the reactor, the "Freeze Plug" located in the drain will melt, allowing the fuel/salt mixture to flow out into a series of small "Emergency dump tanks" positioned at intervals.

    Due to the tanks' limited size and significant spacing, coupled with the absence of a moderator between them, the fuel/salt no longer forms a critical mass, causing the fission reaction to cease and facilitating the cooling process.

    The reactor's meltdown prevention relies on two crucial assumptions:

    1. The "Freeze Plug" will melt at the expected temperature.
    2. Gravity operates as anticipated.

    These are extremely reliable assumptions.

    The United States government successfully conducted tests on a prototype of a meltdown-proof reactor in Idaho during the early 1990s. Despite subjecting the reactor to various attempts to induce a meltdown, including disabling the cooling system (similar to the events at Fukushima), it consistently shut down without issues or any leakage of radiation.

    However, following this achievement, federal funding for nuclear research was discontinued due to pressure from the anti-nuclear movement.

    An important aspect of a meltdown-proof reactor is that it eliminates the need for every component in the plant to adhere to a safety standard of 99.9999%, which is currently necessary in existing plants with the potential for meltdown, results in exorbitant costs, as one observer put it, "the toilet paper in a nuclear power plant has to be gold-plated>". With a meltdown-proof reactor core, these stringent standards can be significantly relaxed for the remaining plant infrastructure, resulting in substantial cost savings.

    It is worth noting that most conventional reactors in the United States utilize water as a neutron moderator (Chernobyl used graphite). Without water, the neutrons become too fast for sustained fission, effectively halting the chain reaction. However, the immediate byproducts of uranium fission are highly radioactive and generate considerable heat during their decay process, potentially leading to a meltdown. Therefore, to ensure a meltdown-proof reactor, the tanks into which the liquid fuel drains must be surrounded by sufficient thermal mass capable of absorbing this heat even without an active cooling system.

    Danger / Safety:

    "Nuclear is very dangerous.  The potential for a catastrophic accident on the scale of another Chernobyl is indeed a cause for concern. Despite our efforts to enhance nuclear safety, there will always remain a certain level of risk, which could result in the loss of thousands of lives. Consequently, it seems imperative to advocate for a complete ban on nuclear energy to eliminate any possibility of such a devastating event reoccurring in the future."

    According to the World Health Organization, approximately 4,000 individuals lost their lives due to the Chernobyl disaster. However, far worse things have already happened with non-nuclear energy. Following the Fukushima accident, Germany made the decision to shut down all their nuclear power plants, which were not harming anyone, and resorted to burning coal as an energy substitute. The resulting coal soot pollution has already claimed twice as many lives in Germany as the total casualties of Chernobyl, as of 2021. Reflect on this fact: Germany's nuclear plant shutdown led to double the number of deaths compared to the Chernobyl accident.

    On a global scale, coal soot pollution claims the lives of approximately 741,000 people annually, which amounts to more than one person per minute. Every four days, coal pollution causes more deaths than the entire 70-year history of nuclear energy-related fatalities, and yet, we have become accustomed to it. The media's bias is striking; while coal pollution claims thousands of lives, such occurrences go unnoticed, whereas a single radiation-related death becomes a global sensation. It is crucial to place matters into proper perspective.

    The Chernobyl accident represents a worst-case scenario for a nuclear disaster, with an unspeakably poor plant design completely unlike any American plant. There is absolutely no reason to construct a facility resembling Chernobyl in the future. Unlike Chernobyl, American reactors have containment vessels, significantly reducing the potential severity of accidents. The Chernobyl incident exposed a large population to substantial radiation, yet the actual health consequences were far less severe than initially anticipated by scientists.

    One concern raised involves the possibility of terrorists infiltrating a nuclear plant, obtaining nuclear waste, and creating dirty bombs. However, this scenario is highly unlikely, and dirty bombs are far less dangerous than atomic bombs. A dirty bomb would likely cause casualties in the range of a thousand people at most. Achieving this would require the terrorists to commandeer the plant, overcome law enforcement efforts, extract waste from dry casks or cooling pools (a significant challenge), and escape the heavily guarded plant premises. In contrast, if a terrorist organization possessed a group of commandos, it would be considerably easier for them to carry automatic weapons within several hundred yards of an NFL stadium during a game, fire at an angle that projects bullets into the stadium and killing thousands of people. They could escape before law enforcement could effectively respond.

    The number of radiation-related deaths expected from the Fukushima meltdown remains relatively low. The majority of Fukushima-related deaths were a result of unnecessary panic-driven evacuations across a wide area surrounding the plant. By learning from this experience, we can avoid unnecessary panic in future incidents. Not a single fatality occurred at the Three Mile Island accident. Considering the type of large light-water reactors with containment vessels currently employed, the occurrence of an accident would likely result in less than a dozen deaths, similar to a typical industrial accident.

    Fatality Rates per Petawatt-Hour
    Source: Forbes Magazine: Click Here.
    A "petawatt" is 10^15 watts, a thousand terawatts, a million gigawatts, or a billion megawatts.
    Energy Source Death Rate
    Per PWH
    Coal: China 170,000
    Coal: World 100,000
    Oil 36,000
    Biofuel 24,000
    Coal: USA 10,000
    Natural Gas 4,000
    Hydro: Global 1,400
    Solar 440
    Wind 150
    Nuclear: Global Including Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island 90
    Hydro: US 5
    Nuclear: US Including Three Mile Island 0.1

    Coal is a disastrous source of energy in terms of deaths, the soot pollution just kills people left and right. We should phase it out whether global warming is a problem or not.

    Rooftop solar has nearly 5 times the deaths per watt as nuclear because of the fact that installers and maintenance workers fall off the roofs and die, and they add up.

    The problem with hydro is that, every once in awhile, dams burst and the rushing water wipes out whole cities downstream. There was one particularly catastrophic dam failure at Banqiao, China in 1975 that killed 170,000 people (42 Chernobyl's worth).

    Nuclear Waste:

    "Nuclear waste remains highly toxic for hundreds of thousands of years, and we have yet to devise a viable and acceptable long-term storage solution. It is essential that we refrain from utilizing nuclear energy until we can establish a satisfactory approach for managing the waste. However, it seems impossible to find such a solution."

    Finland has successfully established a long-term waste repository in Onkalo. Although the United States currently lacks a comparable facility, the storage of nuclear waste is not a significant issue where it is currently stored, primarily in large dry casks located near nuclear power plants. Creating effective long-term repositories is not an insurmountable technical challenge; rather, it simply lacks immediate prioritization.

    When listening to opponents of nuclear energy discuss waste, one may get the impression that nuclear waste is the only toxic substance in existence. In reality, the Earth is riddled with various toxic substances, particularly when considering naturally occurring bio-hazards.

    Promising advancements in nuclear reactor designs exist, which can consume what is currently deemed high-level nuclear waste and produce smaller quantities of waste with shorter half-lives. Constructing such reactors would not only allow us to process existing waste but also generate a significant amount of electricity as an added benefit. Thorium nuclear power produces less waste than traditional uranium nuclear power and poses fewer associated concerns.

    Nuclear waste falls into four distinct categories:

    1. Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF)
    2. High-Level Waste (HLW)
    3. Transuranic Waste (TRU)
    4. Low-Level Waste (LLW)

    Rather than burying SNF underground and disregarding it, innovative reactor designs can utilize it as fuel, transforming it into less problematic waste.

    Most HLW is classified as high-level due to its high radioactivity, but it does not necessarily possess long half-lives. Much of the previously categorized HLW from 30 years ago has since decayed into TRU.

    In New Mexico near Carlsbad, we currently have an operational repository for TRU waste, which has been in existence since 1999.

    LLW is relatively benign and can be disposed of in the depths of landfills.

    Consequently, only a relatively small quantity of HLW remains for permanent deep underground burial.

    In the United States, significant progress was made towards establishing a robust long-term storage solution at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Located in the desert, far from populated areas, the waste would be encapsulated in glass to prevent any potential liquid spills and buried in underground caverns thousands of feet deep. Unfortunately, Senator Harry Reid, who held considerable power as the Senate Majority Leader, used his influence to undermine the project. He even appointed Gregory Jaczko, a vocal nuclear opponent, as the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

    It was an unfortunate coincidence that a senator from a sparsely populated state assumed the position of Senate Majority Leader at precisely the right moment to sabotage Yucca Mountain. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Senator Reid is no longer in the Senate.

    Considering that Yucca Mountain was a larger repository than strictly necessary, in the event that progress cannot be made with that particular site, we can explore the establishment of a smaller repository elsewhere for HLW storage.

    Waste: The NIMBY Problem

    The challenge arises from the fact that the majority of individuals oppose the presence of a nuclear waste storage facility near their vicinity, even if it is located hundreds of miles away. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the "NIMBY" or "not in my backyard" problem.

    It is important to note that nuclear energy is not the sole domain affected by NIMBY issues. No one desires to have a sewage treatment plant, junkyard, fossil fuel power plant, or oil refinery situated right next to their homes. However, despite these objections, we have found ways to construct such facilities. The typical approach to addressing NIMBY concerns involves locating these objectionable facilities in areas with fewer residents or where the affected communities lack significant political influence, allowing opposing voices to be outvoted.

    Even renewable energy sources like solar farms and windmills encounter NIMBY challenges. In certain counties of upstate New York, for instance, solar farms have been banned because the people would rather look at cows. Similarly, objections to windmills stem from concerns about noise pollution, bird fatalities, and aesthetic considerations voiced by many individuals.

    Waste: The Solution Problem

    Half the problem with creating a long-term nuclear waste repository is that we have a lot of people who don't want there to be a solution to the waste problem. Even if we had a way to make the waste just disappear, these people would be opposed to that. Why? Because they have a deep, irrational fear of nuclear energy, and as long as we don't have a long-term waste repository, that's an argument against nuclear energy. So when any repository is proposed, nuclear opponents will make ridiculous, nitpicking arguments against it, which did happen to Yucca Mountain.

    Cost and Speed of Construction

    "Nuclear Power Plants are Very Expensive, and Very Slow to Build"

    In the United States, the construction of nuclear plants has been both costly and time-consuming. However, we can observe that these issues are not inherent to nuclear power, as other countries such as France, Sweden, and South Korea have had significantly better experiences. These countries have adopted standardized designs and replicated them extensively, resulting in reduced costs per reactor. Additionally, there is substantial evidence suggesting that the American regulatory framework poses particular challenges compared to those countries, indicating the potential for reform.

    As mentioned earlier, the development of meltdown-proof next-generation nuclear designs could enable less burdensome and expensive regulation, leading to significant cost reductions.

    Advocates of renewables often claim that wind and solar energy are already cheaper than fossil fuels. I have even heard Al Gore make this assertion. However, such statements are highly misleading and essentially false. While wind and solar energy may be affordable on a sunny, windy day, they become unavailable at any price during calm nights, when their energy cannot be had at any price. It is essential to have access to electricity 24/7/365, and achieving this with wind and solar power necessitates costly storage solutions, none of which are economically viable at present, and the cost of storage is not projected to decline enough to solve the problem.

    Moreover, advancements in nuclear power plant designs offer the potential for cheaper and faster construction. Smaller modular plants manufactured on assembly lines or plants built on barges in shipyards could be mass-produced more efficiently and inexpensively compared to the conventional approach of constructing large light-water reactors one by one. Furthermore, there are even more revolutionary designs being explored.

    It is worth noting that France, a country heavily reliant on nuclear energy, provides electricity at half the price of Germany, which has phased out nuclear power plants in favor of wind and solar energy. This comparison emphasizes the cost advantages associated with nuclear power.

    Very small plants (called "nuclear batteries") that can fit in a few shipping containers could be useful for military bases in remote locations as an alternative to constructing power lines, but the cost per watt from such plants is very high.

    For reasons I don't entirely understand, the United States is just lousy at building big things. Building a mile of subway in New York City costs six times as much as it does in Europe. This could be a large part of why construction of nuclear plants in the US has tended to run far over budget and behind schedule. If we could come to terms with whatever is wrong with our society to cause this problem, it would help.

    The "Akademik Lomonosov", nuclear reactor built on a barge, providing power for an Arctic region in Russia.

    Modular designs of reactors where the pieces are manufactured on an assembly line and then assembled on site could save costs, as could constructing plants on barges in shipyards.

    Limited Fuel

    "There's Only Enough Uranium on the Planet for 90 Years of Nuclear Energy"

    That is a flat-out lie. There are only enough known reserves of uranium on land for 90 years, but it can also be obtained from sea water at an acceptable price, and there is enough uranium to be had from sea water to power the human race for billions of years until the sun explodes.

    Problems with Uranium Mining

    "Uranium Mining is Toxic and Environmentally Unfriendly"

    We mine many toxic substances, uranium is not terribly unusual in this regard. Mining cobalt, mercury, sulfur, flourite, quartz, and lead are also very toxic and problematic. And if we don't like mining uranium, we can always switch to getting uranium from sea water (see above).

    Throttling Inflexibility

    "Nuclear Plants Can't Throttle Their Power Output Up and Down Fast Enough to Match Grid Demand"

    That is true for the big nuclear power stations we have now, but it is not an unsolvable problem with nuclear. The US and Russian navies have nuclear reactors on many submarines and ships, and those reactors have to throttle rapidly. When we want to build nuclear power plants that can throttle rapidly, it won't be particularly hard.

    Nuclear Proliferation

    "Any country with a nuclear reactor within its borders can produce nuclear bombs"

    That is just not true. It's like saying that any country that has airports can manufacture fighter jets.

    Furthermore, having everybody in the world stop using nuclear energy to generate electricity will not eliminate the possibility of people making nuclear weapons. There's nothing to prevent some belligerent country from mining uranium (especially from sea water), enriching it, and making atom bombs. The only way to eliminate that possibility would be to somehow get everybody to forget that atom bombs are possible. Good luck with that.

    It will not be particularly hard to provide nuclear power to an unstable or potentially hostile country without making it easier for them to develop nuclear bombs. There is no reason for each country that has nuclear reactors to enrich their own fuel. In some planned designs with small nuclear reactors, the reactor core is shipped to the site sealed with the fuel already in it, and replaced by another core like that when the fuel runs out, so the operators would never have access to the fuel. If a hostile country took such a reactor and just tore it open to get at the fuel inside, they would still be a long way from being able to make a bomb, because reactor fuel is nowhere near sufficiently enriched for bomb production.

    Also, thorium-based nuclear energy is much harder to make bombs with. It's possible, though hard, to build U-233 bombs based on thorium, but they have a nasty habit of going off by mistake. What wants a bomb like that?


    "Can't we just use wind and solar energy, with battery storage to carry us through calm nights?"

    Lithium-ion batteries are currently way too expensive for much grid storage. There are a couple of places using lithium-ion batteries for grid applications, but they tend to be only big enough for four hours of backup. If you took all the lithium-ion batteries produced in the whole world in a year and used all of them to back up the American electrical grid, it would amount to a few minutes of storage. There's talk on the drawing board about flow batteries, but they don't seem to have materialized.

    Battery prices have been declining, but nowhere near fast enough for them to be appropriate for mass-grid storage. Moore's Law does not apply to batteries, that is, batteries are not getting cheaper and better anywhere near as fast as computers do. And we anticipate the improvements in lithium-ion batteries to bottom out around 2030, at which point they will still be too expensive for mass grid storage.

    The Mark Z. Jacobson Plan

    "Mark Z. Jacobson Has a Non-Nuclear Plan to Reach Zero Carbon by 2050 That is All Worked Out and Good to Go"

    Stanford professor Mark Z Jacobson claims to have worked out a viable plan, but he has many critics who say it just plain won't work. We discuss the plan in detail on a separate page.

    "Chernobyl" the 2019 TV Mini-Series

    There were a few gross inaccuracies in that TV series:

  • In the series, a fireman is called to put out the fire after the Chernobyl explosion and gets exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. This was accurate, someone in his position was very likely to die. But the series spends a tremendous amount of time on his pregnant wife, who catches up with him in the hospital after he's had his clothes taken off, been showered, and is wearing fresh pajamas. The doctors knew he was doomed. But in the series, the wife, by hugging and kissing him and putting his hand on the baby, exposed her and the fetus to so much radiation that the baby was stillborn. This is just not accurate. Unless they have swallowed a lot of radiactive material, someone who has been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, once they've been showered and had a change of clothing, is not radiactive and poses no threat to visitors.
  • The series also tells the story of 3 volunteers who went on a "suicide mission" into the plant to open a valve to prevent an explosion. According to the series, these 3 workers received a lethal dose of radiation and were assumed to have died in great pain in the following weeks or months. Actually, two of them, Alexei Ananenkoff and Valeri Bezpaolov, are still alive, and the other one, Boris Baranov, their supervisor, died of a heart attack in 2005 (the Chernobyl accident was in 1986).
  • In the series, coal miners are recruited to dig a tunnel under the melted core to prevent it from melting down to geological water table and contaminating it. The tunnel was to contain a cooling system to cool the soil and prevent the core from melting through. This was true, but the series fails to mention that they never installed the cooling system once they had determined that the core had stopped melting its way through the ground after a descent of about 3 stories.
  • The Linear No-Threshold (LNT) Model of Radiation Harm

    Opinions on how much radiation it takes to have an effect on people are split, with different scientific committees taking different positions.

  • The Linear No-Threshold (LNT) Model says that if you receive half as much radiation as someone else, you have exactly half their likelihood of getting cancer from it. There is no threshold below which radiation becomes harmless.
  • The other point of view is that the body can repair damage from very small amounts of radiation, so if a dose of radiation is split among a large group of people, they will, on average, experience fewer radiation-induced cancers than if a smaller number of people were exposed to the same amount of total radiation.
  • Scientific bodies seem to be pretty evenly split on the subject:

  • Supporting the LNT Model:
  • US National Research Council
  • The US National council on Radiation and Measurements
  • The US Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation
  • US EPA
  • Opposing the LNT Model:
  • The French Academy of Science
  • The Health Physic Society
  • The American Nuclear Society
  • It should be noted that the people in favor of the LNT model don't have much empirical evidence to back them up because the low doses are so low that they aren't very large in comparison with natural background radiation and the numbers of people who would have to be tracked to observe the cancer rate is very large and there would be other confounding factors influencing cancer rates.

    Research on a million babies who were fetuses during the Chernobyl accident whose mothers were located in areas with differing amounts of radiation exposure found no observable difference in birth defects between the more and less irradiated fetuses.

    Also, there are people living in some places in the world that naturally experience more background radiation than others, such as high-altitude places that get more radiation from space, or places where the ground is naturally radioactive, and there are some circumstantial studies showing no increase in cancer rates among people living in more radioactive locations, and no studies showing any heightened cancer risks in those locations.

    The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) "accepts the LNT hypothesis as a conservative model for estimating radiation risk", but notes that "public health data do not absolutely establish the occurrence of cancer following exposure to low doses and dose rates – below about 10,000 mrem (100 mSv). Studies of occupational workers who are chronically exposed to low levels of radiation above normal background have shown no adverse biological effects."


    Decarbonizing the economy will take decades, and we should keep all options open. Nuclear energy absolutely should not be dismissed, because many people feel that it would be impossible to decarbonize without it, and many more feel that decarbonization would be much less expensive if we employ it.

    We should definitely:

  • Fund more research into advanced, next generation nuclear designs, including:
  • meltdown-proof reactors
  • reactors that consume what is now high-level waste and turn it into less problematic waste
  • small reactors that can be mass-produced
  • reactors that can be mass-produced on barges in shipyards
  • thorium reactors
  • Meltdown-proof reactor cores specifically designed to be dropped in to replace the combustion part of fossil fuel power plants, very cheaply converting an existing fossil fuel plant into a zero-carbon nuclear plant. A company named Holtec is offering such a product now.
  • Continue discussing and perfecting the Mark Z Jacobson plan, and fund more research into UPHS (Underground Pumped Hydro Storage).
  • Re-evaluate the American legal framework of nuclear regulation to make it more like the French or Swedish frameworks.
  • Activate the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and consider opening others in other parts of the country to avoid having to ship waste very far to one repository. Make legal changes to streamline red tape involved in shipping waste to repositories.

  • Conservative Climate Activists


    Email the Organizer,
    Bill Chapman