Frequently Asked Questions
"All of the major problems with Renewables aren't technical. They're natural."
If Nuclear Energy is safe, why are people so afraid of it?
Confusion between nuclear power and atomic bombs
Misunderstanding of radioactivity.
Fictional stories that become part of our zeitgeist.
Exaggerated after-effects of nuclear plant accidents.
Will batteries solve the problem of the intermittent nature of wind and solar?
It is claimed that extensive reliance on electricity generation by wind/solar will be enabled by energy storage systems that supplement “the grid” at times when the renewables are unable to meet power needs. On the face of it, this requirement is to ensure sufficient power when renewables are insufficient to meet needs while, during periods of lower demand AND if excess power from renewables is available, energy can be “stored” for future use. Of the available technologies for large-scale energy storage, lithium ion battery systems are perhaps the main approach currently expected to provide that support.
1. The quantity of lithium required to provide sufficient storage for grid support, nationally and globally, is prohibitive.
2. Battery storage is a “low energy density” technology, which means that a large volume/space is needed to store a given amount of energy.
3. Other concerns with lithium ion batteries include
the 15-20% loss on each charge/discharge cycle,
the limited battery lifetime (15-20 years),
the environmental impact of lithium metal mining.For example, each ton of lithium extracted from the rich deposits in the South American “lithium triangle” requires about 500,000 gallons of water, in a region that is already a desert.
What is "New Nuclear"?
I. Old New
One of the most surprising things to learn is that nuclear energy production in the United States was completely “new” within a year after the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.
II. New Old
Even “old”, i.e. conventional, nuclear is being reborn.
III. NEW NUCLEAR
Dozens of companies and governments throughout the world are busy on truly revolutionary developments in nuclear power generation. One key aspect of most of these developments is the fact that safety will no longer be a complex “engineered” aspect of reactor design, Rather, the safety will be intrinsic to the technology.
What about radioactive waste?
1. The amount is very small.
2. It’s all contained and secured.
3. It’s never harmed anybody.
4. It’s not as dangerous as people believe.
5. We know how to handle it safely.
6. It’s not really waste.
Can the radioactive material from a nuclear energy plant be used in an atomic bomb?
Basically, NO. The spent fuel from a conventional water-cooled power plant reactor does not contain uranium of sufficient enrichment to make a weapon. The small amount of plutonium in a used fuel rod cannot be used because of its isotopic mixture. To make a uranium-based weapon, centrifuges are used for enrichment. To make a plutonium-based weapon, special defense department reactors are used to ensure that the plutonium is almost entirely plutonium-239. The plutonium-239 in a used fuel rod is mixed with plutonium-240 which makes the mixture useless for a weapon and impossible to separate.
In addition, the more radioactive fission products present in used fuel rods make them deadly to handle without special, heavy, shielded equipment, and spent fuel storage facilities are heavily secured. If someone were to somehow obtain some of this material it would take an elaborate facility to separate the materials for extraction of uranium or plutonium. The idea of a rogue terrorist stealing any of this material to make a bomb is preposterous.
If Nuclear energy is so great, why are many plants being decommissioned?
This has been a recent trend – now changing – in Europe and the United States, but not true in the world at large where more than 50 nuclear plants are now under construction, with many more expected in the near future.
In the United States, this decommissioning trend has been fueled by irrational public fear, which has contributed to excessive regulatory bureaucracy and cost. In the face of these obstacles, investors have been reluctant to take on the large up-front capital expenditures required to build conventional nuclear power plants.
Isn't it true that nuclear power plants are too expensive and take too long to build?
No! The Westinghouse AP-1000 reactors finally being completed at the Vogtle plant in Georgia are frequently cited as proof of this canard. This project was first-of-a-kind, therefore bearing an enormous regulatory cost. Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy during the construction, and the NRC made new demands after construction began which required demolition and redesign. By contrast, the direct descendants of this design are being built on budget and on time elsewhere in the world. The South Koreans are building four in the United Arab Emirates, and several of the Chinese take-off are being constructed in China and elsewhere. In fact the first AP1000’s are already operating in China.
The economics change dramatically for the better when one design is selected and built out in multiples. This is how France developed majority nuclear power at a reasonable cost in the course of one decade.
Finally, modern Small Modular Reactors show the promise of much lower cost and much shorter build times which further reduces the cost of up-front capital.
Is there enough Uranium or other fissionable material to provide our energy needs into the future?
Yes. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, there has been concern about limited supplies of uranium. In the 1950’s the estimates were so low that extracting the considerable amount of uranium in coal ash was considered a reasonable option. Since that time, more and more large resources have been uncovered. Also, the low-impact method of in-situ extraction (no mining and environmentally benign) has opened up many more terrestrial sources. Finally, although it would be much more expensive than terrestrial uranium, uranium in the oceans is so plentiful that it could provide an economically viable source in the future.
There are other factors, as well. Today, most nuclear power production relies on the scarce isotope of uranium U-235 which is less than 1% of natural uranium. With breeder reactors, the remaining 99%, U-238, can be converted to fissionable Plutonium-239 in a breeder reactor.
Then there is Thorium. Thorium can be converted in a suitable breeder reactor to fissionable U-233. Thorium is plentiful throughout the world. It is almost four times as abundant as natural uranium, therefore hundreds of times more abundant than our usual nuclear fuel, U-235.
Can conservation play a major role in reducing our carbon footpinrt?
Efforts aimed at energy conservation are always worthwhile, and improvements in energy efficiency are bound to occur in any event, even without regulatory pressure, since lower operating costs are a fine selling point for any technology.
As a means of solving the global warming crisis, however, increasing energy conservation and efficiency are, in a word, inadequate. Moreover, imposing austere conservation criteria has obvious moral drawbacks, quite aside from the question of depriving our grandchildren of increasingly sophisticated electronic/computing devices because our own generation failed to act.
Can Hydrogen play a major role in our path to decarbonization?
Hydrogen is exciting; it has great promise as an essential tool on our path to decarbonization.
However, there are a few things to understand about Hydrogen. The first thing is this: Hydrogen is not a Source. Like Electricity, it is a Carrier. You can’t mine hydrogen. You have to use some other energy source to produce it, and any time you convert one form of energy into another, or store it, you lose some of the original energy in the process.
What is Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) and why is it misleading as a comparison between different modes of electric generation?
Levelized Cost of Electricity, or LCOE, is the average revenue per unit of generated electricity that would be required to recover the costs of building and operating a generating plant during a specified cost recovery period.[i] The costs included in the LCOE are typically the cost of construction, financing, fuel, operations, maintenance, and decommissioning.[ii] A key point here, as evidenced in the terminology “to recover the costs” is that LCOE is essentially relevant only to an investor whose concern, naturally, is maximizing the return on investment. LCOE is not a representation of the cost of electricity to consumers.
Even in the context of investment, and especially in other deliberations, LCOE can be very misleading. This is because there are significant deficiencies in calculating LCOE, which are particularly important in comparisons of different modes of power generation.
Can we reduce CO2 through carbon capture and storage?
There is a great deal of hope for this. However, there are several substantial barriers to overcome, primarily the amount of Carbon Dioxide that is produced, the energy required to capture it, and how to store or otherwise sequester it.