The 100-Year Gap in Understanding

William Tucker, author of the forthcoming book Terrestrial Energy, blogged here earlier this week about nuclear power. This is his last of three guest posts here on the subject.

When I was in college I took a course on the great political philosophers. Soon I had them all lined up with their respective eras: Hobbes and the 18th-century monarchies, Locke and the American Revolution, Kant and 19th-century nation-states.

Then I chanced to see a timeline of their births and deaths. To my amazement, each had lived 100 years before I had placed him. The lesson seemed plain. It takes about 100 years for ideas to enter history.

It has been the same with nuclear power. The potential of nuclear energy was first formulated in 1905 in Einstein‘s famous equation, E=mc2. Most people know it by now. Mariah Carey even named her latest album after it. But its true significance has not yet been recognized.

E=mc2 says that energy is created out of matter. Chemical energy comes from the transformation of very small amounts of matter in the electron shells, which contain one eighteen-hundredth of the mass of an atom. But most of the atom’s mass is in the nucleus and the energy stored there is two million times greater.

To most people, this has meant “big, big bombs.” But the more important implication is “small, small environmental impact.”

A 1,000-megawatt coal plant is fed by a 110-car coal train arriving every day. A nuclear reactor is replenished by a single tractor-trailer bringing new fuel rods once every 18 months. Over the course of a year, the coal plant will release 400,000 tons of sulfur and fly ash. Some of this ends up in landfills, but most escapes into the atmosphere where it kills 30,000 people annually, according to the E.P.A. Then there’s the carbon dioxide — seven millions tons annually from each plant — which is the principle cause of global warming.

By comparison, the “wastes” of nuclear power can once again be contained in a single truck. I recently watched one of these spent fuel assemblies being lifted into the receiving room at France’s nuclear reprocessing center in La Hague. It is an eerie sight — the most radioactive object in the solar system emitting double what you would have received standing at ground zero in Hiroshima. Yet a three-foot wall separated us, and the emissions didn’t even register on our badges. More than 95 percent of the spent fuel rod can be recycled. That is why France is able to store all its “waste” (from 30 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity) beneath the floor of a single room.

It all seems too good to be true. People conjure up all kinds of nightmare scenarios just to compensate. Yet the reality remains: nuclear energy is the most environmentally benign discovery ever made.

Rod Adams

There are many very interesting and perceptive comments in this thread. There are also legitimate questions about cost and business decision making, wondering why, if nuclear is as good as some of us believe, that it has not taken a more firm root in our economy.

I come at this discussion from a rather unique position - I have been trying to actually sell modern nuclear power systems (first as an idea to investors) for more than 15 years, so I have learned quite a bit about the reasons behind the reluctance and the lack of new construction here in the US over the past 30 years.

Fundamentally, one has to realize that the country and its decision makers in government and big business are most definitely ADDICTED to fossil fuels. They are the lifeblood of the economy and they provide the basis for enormous structures of power and wealth. In our current world, the people who control access to fossil fuels have a huge influence in the way that we all live and even some strong influence in the way that we all think.

One reason that nuclear fission energy has had such a struggle to succeed after some early initial successes - like a reliable power plant operating underwater just 13 years after the basic physical process had been proven - is that it is extremely threatening to the people whose very existence is defined by a continued need to use fossil fuels.

Just suppose that there had not been any organized resistance to nuclear power. What would our world look like today?

I will give you some hints. By the early 1970s the US was completing between 10 and 20 new nuclear plants each year. When utilities stopped ordering plants in 1974, there were more than 200 plants either completed, under construction or on order. If we had simply continued building without increasing the rate, by 2000 there would not have been a need to operate a single coal fired power plant in the US.

We were also building nuclear surface ships of several different sizes, not just aircraft carriers. That process could have continued so that the rest of the surface navy would be fission based instead of burning 10 million barrels of oil per year. (Our ten aircraft carriers and 45 submarines are all nuclear powered and use very little fuel.)

With continued building programs in the Navy, our shipyards, instead of contracting to the point of just being used to maintain existing ships with a couple of orders per year for naval vessels, could have continued expansion and extended their business by supplying nuclear power plants to commercial ships operated by well paid and highly trained US mariners. That effort could have potentially saved the world between 3-6% of our current daily oil consumption. That works out to about 2-4 million barrels of oil per day.

Our Army nuclear power program, with its small reactors capable of being constructed in the most remote areas of the world in just a few months might have continued and expanded into a world wide program to build small plants in remote areas that could be serviced by well trained operators. Fuel would never need to be vulnerable to diversion - it only needs replacing on rare occasions and that could be done with specialized teams. As a former submarine engineer officer, I can tell you that it is easy to envision a sealed system that provides no access to local operators yet provides enormous amounts of emission free power.

The problem with this alternative universe is that it threatened all of the people who mainline oil, coal and gas. Banks, politicians, transporters (one of the biggest anti-nuclear organizations in Australia, for example, was the railroad unions), engineers specializing in fossil power, and international energy companies all hate the idea that there is a power source that is actually cheaper, more reliable and cleaner than the one that they control.

Today, 104 nuclear plants supply the US with more than 800 terawatt-hours of electricity. That is about 30% more than all of the power plants combined supplied to the grid in 1960, several years after the first commercial nuclear power plant started operating. Those plants produce the energy equivalent of more than 4 million barrels of oil per day at a total operating cost - ignoring the nearly paid off initial investments - of about 1.76 cents per kilowatt hour.

That is roughly equivalent to oil costing $10 per barrel. Don't you think that fossil fuel addicts would work really, really hard to deny the suggestion that shifting our dependence to the "methadone" of nuclear energy would be preferable? After all, the LIKE selling oil at prices in excess of $100 per barrel, coal at prices in excess of $100 per ton, and natural gas at prices in excess of $8 per million BTU.

One more thing - who do you think is pushing wind and solar power, which do not threaten the dominance of fossil fuels? Who makes the windmills and the panels and stands to benefit when unwitting salesmen force us all to subsidize their purchase? (Answer: GE, Siemens, BP, etc. Most are essentially fossil addicts.)



all that talking about France reprocessing fuel, what if the air force established a program with the french government a program to deliver nuclear waste over there so it can be reprocessed? of course, paying for the service and some more to ensure none of it gets in the wrong hands (i assume france as a developed nation already has strong security, but just in case....)

as for transport, the military already has decades of experience moving nuclear bombs and material around the world, in planes, ships, submarines, etc so it couldn't be much harder to deal with civilian nuclear waste.

i see a win-win situation here, the french wouldn't even have to store our waste, they'd just put the tiny waste generated in reprocessing next to the not so tiny new fuel generated and ship it back to america.

i'm sure this whole thing, even with the unavoidable red tape will come way cheaper than dealing with the fuel locally.



@Alex, 22:

Three Miles Islands and Chernobyls are things of the past. Think about it this way: how many nuclear plant disasters in the past 30 years can you think of that have occurred in, say, the UK, France, and the USA?

Now compare that to coal mine disasters in those same nations. Nuclear power comes way out in front in terms of lives lost/negatively affected, cost for recovery and cleanup, and other sundry expenses, both human and other.

@Johannes, 25:
"On Charlie Rose at NPR, IIRC, Lovins asked 'if nuclear power is economic, how come no companies have been lobbying for the right to build nuclear power plants?'"

He obviously hasn't seen the Areva commercials that were a big deal earlier this year:

A E Pfeiffer

To quote the architect William McDonough: "I love clean nuclear power. I'm espacially fond of nuclear fusion and delighted to know that we have a nuclear fusion reactor 93 million miles away, exactly where we can use it."

We could make a lot more use of it if we wanted to.

We The People

Traciatim said on the subject of human activity causing global warming:

"It is one possible factor, and maybe not even the primary factor. We're not really sure yet (unless your a politician trying to gouge with taxes or an actor trying to beg for money."


And you know this how exactly?

Because you're qualified to analyze the papers and research which have established this fact and reject them? Would you care to detail for the readers of this blog your means and methods of research or the flaws in the papers of the scientists which they and their peer-review process overlooked but you caught?

So their seven years post grad and five years post PhD. and then their twenty years spent working in their field is no match for your penetrating insight, is this what you're trying to tell us?

That you're ready willing and anxious to take the stage at the next conference and refute them to their faces and take on all their questions and understand and then rebut everything they say to you, and in the end that auditorium and indeed, the entire scientific world, will stand in awe and be shamed into silence by your brilliant arguments?

Do you know what narcissism is?

Do you know what it means to be stuck at the narcissistic stage of development?

Do you know what the characteristics of someone who is stuck at the narcissistic stage of development are?

During the 60s and 70s, when the evidence that smoking causes lung cancer became irrefutable, the tobacco industry e.g. Phillip Morris, (now Altri) funded all kinds of "studies" by scientists which "proved" that there was no connection between the two.

They also trotted out all kinds of doctors who were willing (to be paid) to go on record as saying that their was no connection between smoking and lung cancer.

Even as late as the 1990s we have the sorry little spectacle of the CEOs of the tobacco companies testifying before Congress that they didn't believe smoking causes cancer.

During all this, the big picture was always- the vast majority of scientists and specialists in the field knew what their data was telling them and were speaking with one voice- smoking causes lung cancer.

Does anyone really think that the people of earth are going to sit idly by while politically well connected industries and their handful of bloated, bloviating CEOs with their armies of greasy PR firms destroy the habitability OF THE EARTH ITSELF, cause food riots, spark global wars between nations, melt the ice caps and destroy civilization on earth as we know it so they can go on living in the lifestyle they've been accustomed to?

It's time. It's time for government, that is, We The People, to smash forever this Frankesteinian monster called The Corporation which, aside from having no conscience or morality, would destroy everything and everyone,including itself.

The corporation is a legal fiction and nothing more. We can destroy it with the stroke of pen.



That's is so much of optimism being exuded Mr.Tucker, just imagine somewhere down the lane, say 10 yrs., the 'century to comprehend' theory has been realized on nukes and that nuclear energy is available at every backyard, to run homes, organizations and countries. It wud very well then be runnin the Taleban and the Al-Qaeda too, and I hav no reasons to believe they wud build another Dubai out of Iraq and Afghan,
they'd jus shut down their opium farms and smoke a few countries.

Nuclear is not this world's way.


It seems to me there's more like a 150-year gap at work here. The 2nd law of thermodynamics tells us that we can't get more out of a system than goes into it.
In the case of fossil fuels, we're using solar energy that was stored over millions of years -- sort of like burning through your inheritance in an afternoon. With nuclear power, we're using particles created in supernovas. In effect, they represent "cosmic batteries" whose discharge we use.
Are any of our "renewable" energy sources really renewable or nonpolluting? Is anyone exclusively using solar panels, wind turbines, etc. to obtain the raw materials, manufacture the devices and install them on sites? Has anyone figured out a way to make any of these devices that doesn't depend on at least one nonrenewable material?
Granted, these technologies can help reduce pollution by generating part of the power we use, but until someone comes up with a technology that, from scratch, produces more energy than it uses without creating any net pollution, it's not a truly sustainable energy source.
Given the 2nd law, I doubt such a source is possible.


Sean M

I completely agree - nuclear power, managed correctly, is reasonably safe and reliable.

Sure, the waste is essentially eternal (in human terms) but if it can be adequately contained in the near term, I'm sure technologies will develop over the next 100 or 200 years to safely and economically send it off into space.


Yeah - this is all true. It sounds great...great, that is, until there is an accident. Which is extremely rare, but can happen. And when it does, the effects are horrible and irreversible.

We all know that coal power plants have their downfalls, but why is there no comparison to free, safe, and sustainable sources of energy - solar, wind, thermal, oceanic?


Regarding reprocessing waste:

As I recall, it's usually against the rules because that's the process used to make weapons-grade materials.

Pete Aarons

perhaps nuclear power has developed for itself a bad reputation, given that it killed hundreds of thousands of people during world war II, and not to mention the disaster at chernobyl. That's not to say that nuclear power could be the answer to our energy crisis. But in my opinion, it's an easy, but RISKY way out.

There are other alternatives to nuclear power. Consider wind energy, the innovations in solar energy, and even conducting energy from water itself. If we all just worked together as a community to make small eco-friendly changes... I think we'd be fine. Go green!

Kevin H

The only problem is that we don't mind if France has plutonium.

Unfortunately global climate is a global problem, and if we simply aren't going to delay the climate problem by a decade when third world nations who we would rather not have easy access to plutonium start wanting to modernize.

Until we have strong international institutions that can deal with nuclear fuel and waste in an efficient, reliable manner, and can assure the world that every country is reporting 100% of it's waste, instead of just 99% of it's waste, nuclear power will not be a viable global solution.

Given the relative problem solving skills of politicians and scientists, those political hurdles seem much much prohibitive than the technological hurdles needed to allow a safer energy source to provide the worlds energy.


The people wringing their hands about exploding rockets aren't very smart about rockets. Containment and protection of nuclear sources on rockets is very tight, and they have been designed that way for decades. Apollo 13's RTG re-entered at ridiculous speed from its moon return, far faster than would have been seen on the rocket's way up, and is now somewhere at the bottom of an ocean trench, still intact after 40 years. Additionally, the "explosion" of a broken rocket is not a detonation on the same scale as a bomb going off. It's sufficient to tear apart the lightly-built rocket but not to pulverize the protected cargo. You can see for example in the Challenger explosion that the boosters - even the one that torched the tank - keep going merrily along, still functioning just fine until the range safety officer destroys them. The same is true of the recent failed launch that's making the rounds on YouTube.

There's safety concerns and then there's hysteria, and it's the latter that's killing this country. Think hard about nuclear power the next time you choke on diesel exhaust.



About 45 minutes north of Richmond, VA is a 1700MW nuclear plant called North Anna. it is the 4th nuclear facility owned by dominion power co. No cooling towers. An artificial lake with a public 9000acre side and a private 4000acre side were created to provide cooling water.

Seems pretty safe since the both sides have houses built around the lake. you can fish or swim or do any water activity on either side although the private side requires you to own property for lake access. The public side has public launch areas and marinas.

Lots of info from the power company and on Wiki.

there are 2 reactors. the second one came online in 1980. dominion has applied for 2 more reactors at the site for 2020.

the economics of safety concerns and waste processing would drive up costs, but it still must be viable if dominion is looking to expand. If the waste processing were similar to France then some of the disposal cost for waste and new fission material costs might come down to make it more reasonable.

i think that as fossil fuels are exhausted or become expensive to transport nuclear is a viable and proven alternative.

Even the US can't continue to afford 500billion in war dollars to help secure mideast oil. Our dependency will eventually reduce our standard of living.

remember that oil isn't just for power generation or converting to gasoline but many other products rely on it - from fertilizer to plastics. Demand outside of the US won't go away.

think 20 years from now to see what our continued level of dependence force upon the next generation's lifestyle.



I guess the answer is that nobody will drive a 110 car train up to the White House and detonate it?

Of course nobody mentions where they will be getting all the fuel to supply these nuke plants either. How long do you think it will take to increase the supply to meet the current and future needs of the world using all of these new Nuke plants? Ask the pundits this questions.


Totally agree.

Small quibble: that Einstein equation states that energy and matter are equivalent or that matter represents a big store of energy, not that energy is "created out of matter." Energy at some time in the very distant past was compressed into matter, where it remains until it is freed. As you've noted, we can burn a piece of coal or some gasoline, which frees some of the energy locked inside, but nuclear processing frees much, much more. Nuclear power processing merely frees more of the energy that exists in matter.


How about a much safer technology, such as Pebble Bed reactors? No cooling towers, no melt down - does anyone know the disadvantages of these?

Is it just that it's not a mature technology?

Jon H.

"Yet the reality remains: nuclear energy is the most environmentally benign discovery ever made."

I agree that nuclear is overly demonized, and that we have to rethink our national aversion to same, but that line is awfully hyperbolic, don't you think?

The "most environmentally benign discovery ever made?" I won't even bother explaining why that's the most lazy and misleading sentence ever written, because you should know better.

Tyrant King

As long as the spent fuel is stored where the power generated from the fuel is used, go ahead. Otherwise forget it. This is the only acceptable method.


One voice, that I don't know whether I can trust is that of Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, author of "Winning the Oil Endgame". In his words:

"Nuclear power is continuing its decades-long collapse in the global marketplace because it's grossly uncompetitive, unneeded, and obsolete—so hopelessly uneconomic that one needn't debate whether it's clean and safe;"


On Charlie Rose at NPR, IIRC, Lovins asked "if nuclear power is economic, how come no companies have been lobbying for the right to build nuclear power plants?"

I would love to see Freakonomics tackle the issue, if it really is an issue and not just a lonely voice, of whether nuclear power might simply be uneconomic.