A Nuclear President?

NuclearThree Mile Island, Control Room 1.

Well, someone has come right out and said it:

“Sen. John McCain called Wednesday for the construction of 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030.”

That’s according to an A.P. article by David Espo, well worth reading in its entirety.

We have written quite a few times about the likelihood of a return to nuclear power in this country and elsewhere.

It could simultaneously satisfy the growing demand for electricity and the growing concern over carbon emissions released by the burning of coal, which is the primary source of U.S. power plants. (About 20 percent of our electricity already comes from nuclear energy; some people seem to think that we burn oil to make electricity, which is rarely the case any more.)

There are a lot of hurdles to nuclear power (many of them addressed in Espo’s article) and a lot of potential negative externalities as well, including the risk of a nuclear disaster — but there are a lot of reasons to believe that this risk has been gravely oversubscribed.

If nothing else, I am glad to see that nuclear energy is on the table during this presidential campaign.

One big factor to keep in mind as the energy future is worked out: even if the perfect electric car were brought to market tomorrow, it would hardly be a perfect solution from a carbon-emissions standpoint since the electricity needed to run the car would still come from coal-fired plants. If, however, our electric grid 20 years from now were mostly nuclear, it could be a double win, since nuclear plants could provide emission-free (for the most part) electricity for homes as well as cars.


Here in Hawaii about 70% to 80% of our power comes from burning oil based fuels like diesel.

We will never have nuclear in Hawaii as there is a statewide ban. However, we have enough other sources we shouldn't need it. Wind, wave, solar, geothermal, bagasse.


There is no silver bullet to the energy crisis and global warming. Instead of trying to solve things with a single solution, the key is to cut emissions and boost efficiency across a large spectrum.

If we can promote/subsidize solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal energy, conduct more research in renewables, promote transit oriented developments, take steps toward revamping our current transportation infrastructure.... the list goes on; as we make improvements on small slices of the carbon footprint, only then can we effectively reduce it.

Ralph DeSantis

Sometimes it can seem to be a bit overwhelming when we think about our energy and environmental challenges. But solutions are right in front of us if we have the courage to pick a direction and stick to it. Using nuclear power plants to charge electric vehicles seems to be the best solution, and one that we could start to implement immediately. Let's get on with it.


Nuclear power has been making a comeback because of the endless lobbying (and lying) of IATA.

I see no reason to build nuclear power plants and generate radioactive waste when we could be investing in clean sources of energy like solar, wind, geothermal, etc.

But nuclear power is hugely profitable and is being flogged by a number of industry insiders looking for even more profits. Of course they'll make sure there are lots and lots of supportive articles in the media claiming the fears of nuclear power were exaggerated and that it's actually good for everyone.

And they and their friends in the oil industry will make sure the price of oil keeps going up, the better to pressure the public into accepting what is being forced down their throats. The reader's comment about those silly environmental policies getting in the way is exactly the sort of thing the nuclear industry would like you to think.

IATA lied about the Chernobyl victims, and it is lying about the safety of nuclear power.


MITBeta @ http://dontfeedthealligators.com/blog

@Nicholas #10: Actually, more radiation is released into the atmosphere every day by burning coal than has ever been released by the nuclear power industry. The difference is that the radiation in coal, which is just as penetrating as that in nuclear fuel though at lower concentration, occurs "naturally" and cannot, therefore, be regulated.


Regarding reprocessing of waste, the plutonium is a real issue as are other aspects of breeder reactors. But, I agree that a small number of reprocessing plants with strict security can make this much safer - remember though that the Military reprocessing plant in Wa State cannot account for a lot of the plutonium.
As to people's worries, remember 3-mile island, which was in the US.
Regarding overnight charging: in the West, a lot of the nighttime power comes from hydroelectric and other sources that cannot be turned off. Likewise, Nuclear cannot really be turned off (you can lower the control rods to slow the system only), so utilization of that non-peak power is useful.


We may well have more nuclear in the future but shouldn't that be a matter for markets to decide?


Do not confuse 'spent' fuel with waste. The used fuel can be reprocessed and has a tremendous amount of energy remaining in both U235 and P239. It is not useless garbage.

Spent fuel still contains fissionable U-235. That remaining U-235 can be recovered through chemical and physical "reprocessing". Because reprocessing results in the isolation of plutonium, many countries have taken the position that reprocessing increases nuclear weapon proliferation risks, and do not allow reprocessing. However, plutonium is a fissionable element and can be used in reactors.

We should be starting up breeder reactors.


The expense of nuclear energy will always be underestimated. The NIMBY aspects of any new plant or mining operations for fuel will be overwhelming. How do you think people are going to react when the words "uranium" and "radiation" get tossed around in a local planning commission meeting? Its hard enough for a Wal-Mart to move to town... and those are (generally) not radioactive. I agree that the fear of a meltdown is highly over stated, but people aren't going to look at it that way. Its one thing to support nuclear power "somewhere," but how many are going to be for a new plant in their town? The lawsuits and appeals process alone will make utilities think twice.

Chris S.

Although some comments here have noted the high production costs of nuclear power compared to oil/gas/coal, none have addressed the interplay between these costs, public ignorance of radiation hazards, and regulatory issues.

The ignorance of the public regarding the hazards and risks involved in nuclear power is staggering. This ignorance easily turns to fear, and to ease these fears, a regulatory structure has been created to reduce the risk of negative heath effects from nuclear power generation to zero.

While there is an accepted (nonzero) health risk from coal/gas/oil power generation in the form of CO2, sulfur, and particulate emissions, the bar is set far higher (goal of zero risk) for nuclear power generation, making such plants more costly to build and operate.

These significantly higher standards also apply to spent fuel disposal (a very hazardous waste by any measure). The NIMBYs have been thus far successful at preventing the establishment of any regional or national waste storage site by setting the safety standards impossibly high (100% guarantee of safety assuming the facility is abandoned and not maintained for 10,000 years). This has resulted in all spent fuel being stored on-site at power generation facilities, certainly a higher risk to the public than relocating spent fuel to any of the national site proposed to date.

Chris S.


Jason G.

Oh, one more thing, re David S.:

"The other thing you can do with plug in electric is to use the battery capacity as a reserve for use during peek demand or emergency. This can postpone new power plant consturction and prevent rolling brownouts during peak summer afternoon usage."

Hope you weren't planning on using that battery to drive home after work. Looks like the power company decided to use your battery to run your air conditioner. Have a nice walk!

Chris S.

@ Lord #34:

I would agree except that the "markets" are made up entirely of members of the general public, and I doubt that more than 5% of the general public could explain what radiation is in general, let alone what types of radiation cause what health hazards, or the magnitude of background radiation, or the maximum safe exposure levels for an adult or child, etc, etc.

BTW - Messrs. Parker and Stone have made a compelling case that at least 25% of the American public is retarded.

Chris S.


To those who complain about subsidies for nuclear power...

You've got to be kidding me. We grossly subsidize Ethanol. We subsidize oil through our repeated use of military force to ensure we have a sufficient supply (I'm not condemning it, but we certainly do it). Much of the R&D done for nuclear power was really for military nuclear power, and the industry simply piggy-backed off of it. See any good biography of Rickover for details on that.

We have put massive environmental burdens on the nuclear industry, which is why it costs so much to build a plant. Coal mining is hugely destructive to the environment and to the people mining, forget the carbon situation. The waste from coal mining and oil refining are far nastier and for greater than nuclear waste. Most nuclear waste is low-level (90%) and is safe in 100 years not thousands. With breeder reactors, we can actually use the nasty 10% as fuel.



Dear readers,
Read this analysis first. Nuclear is WAY too expensive!




Oh, one other interesting question regarding cost is what fraction of the initial cost of a nuclear plant is due to regulatory red tape. I don't mean necessary safety regulations, I mean inefficiency in getting permits, especially local ones from politicians whose constituents do not want a nuclear plant nearby.

Last I'd heard there was a significant regulatory cost, but all those numbers include the costs imposed by safety regulations. It would be interesting to see how the numbers split up.


I've noticed a gradual turn in public opinion about Nuclear energy. Those that used to oppose it strongly have moved on to decry other things (global warming for one), those that opposed it weakly and have read up on it realize it could be beneficial.

The biggest problem is Chernyobl and once you read up on why it happened (there was numerous failures including outdated equipment and poorly trained technicians) most people's attitudes changed.

The second (or potentially the biggest problem) was the smear given to the nuclear power industry by the China Syndrome movie, making it look like there was no maintenance, and the scene at the end of the movie is bone chilling until you realize it's a Hollywood movie/propeganda not a documentary (though people take it to be fact).

45 plants are the beginning, we need to convince people that Nuclear power is the right way to go before we can build a nuclear infrastructure.

Btw Charging your car at night still requires you to use energy supply, which currently comes from coal, it doesn't matter when you charge the car if you're getting dirty electricity your getting dirty electricity.



Regarding the comment 11 point on nuclear waste, the problem is exacerbated by US legislation. Currently, it is illegal to reprocess nuclear waste in a commercial breeder reactor in the US. That means that instead of taking the waste, reprocessing it, and being able to reuse 90+% of it in nuclear reactors (as the French do, for example), we leave all of it lying around.

The ban on reprocessing has to do with the fact that a byproduct of reprocessing is plutonium, which is of course useful for nuclear weapons. The legislation in question might have made sense in the proliferation-worries climate of thirty years ago, but at this point if you seriously worry about proliferation breeder reactors in the US seem like a much smaller problem than the existence of the North Korean, Pakistani, Indian, Israeli, and maybe Iranian nuclear programs. So it may well be time to start commercial reprocessing instead of just agonizing about disposing waste that should be recycled instead.


Craig Severance CPA

It was not environmentalists but utility executives who stopped nuclear power 30+ years ago, because of extremely high costs.

New proposed nuclear plants are estimated to cost over $8000/kw capacity, roughly double estimates from just a year ago. Most U.S. utilities are still not sold on this. They are funding needed grid capacity cheaply by adding gas turbines at only $600-$650/kw, assuring the lights will always stay on. This leaves a lot of money left over to buy solar and wind, and fund conservation programs to reduce actual fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

If we simply mandate utilities to reduce carbon emissions by a certain percentage, the free market will work out the most cost-effective methods.

If nuclear power is the best way to meet these goals, it will win. It is telling that McCain thinks nuclear will need hundreds of billions in government subsidies even after cap-and-trade is adopted. Those subsidies are just a way to do a favor for the nuclear industry, at the expense of the renewable industry.

Craig Severance, CPA, is co-author of "The Economics of Nuclear and Coal Power" (Praeger, 1976)



@20/elena - I would think the delivery could be more efficient, if the route was optimized to minimize overall travel. If within some area 10 people all drive to another area to a store, then there is 10x the average mileage. If the delivery vehicle does it, it could significantly less. I suppose you'd still ahve to look at the total CO2 and gasoline used in each example.

I'll tell you what, though, I watched a PBS special on "the car of the future" or something like that and the one stat that stood out is that 1% of a car's energy is used to propel the driver forward. The rest is to move the car (and of course some is lost as heat).

@ several others - yes, having electric cars for everyone overnight would shock the system, but wouldn't it be awesome?

In general, couldn't we just all drive cars about 1/5 the size of the average car now? SmartCars for everyone?

Rick Tonsing

OK, as long as the shut down and disposal costs are amortized as electricity is produced. I doubt that nuclear would actually be cheaper if those costs are included. The industry should bear the disposal costs instead of shoving it on to the government.