Jul 28

Thoughts on Nuclear Power

A few weeks ago on Slashdot, there was an article on safer nuclear reactors.  It sounded interesting, but of course since it was on Slashdot the comments turned into a not quite a flame-fest, but certainly there tends to be an undercurrent of “I’m right and you’re wrong” whenever something like this comes up(see also: systemd).

Anyway, while I don’t have anything against nuclear power per se, there are a bunch of problems that make it at least somewhat impractical.  First of all, what are the good things about nuclear power?

  • It’s low carbon – see this Wikipedia article for the exact numbers, but suffice to say that once it is running, it is low carbon.
  • It is cheap electricity once it is running.

The ‘once it is running’ is a rather large caveat though – as we’ve seen in Georgia, building new plants is expensive.  Currently, about 27 billion dollars.  That’s quite a lot of money.  Even once it is on-line, there are very expensive long-term costs from personnel to long-term storage of nuclear waste.  A brother of a family friend of mine works at a nuclear power plant, and he’s now retired at ~50.  He still goes back as a contractor, and apparently makes >$100/hour.

One other problem that probably can’t be solved easily is the NIMBY problem – people are afraid of nuclear power due to the accidents that have happened.  I don’t see a way to solve this, since it is a similar problem to people not liking to fly.  Even though flying is the safest mode of transportation, there are many people who don’t like flying.  My suspicion is this is due to the lack of feeling in control, as well as the fear that if something bad does happen, you feel like you will certainly die.  Most plane accidents that people probably think about are the ones where pretty much everybody dies, so they are afraid that there’s no way out if something bad does happen.

The next question of course, assuming that we don’t have nuclear power, is can we actually generate all of our power from renewable sources such as wind and solar?  The answer may be yes, given that Scotland can(under favorable conditions) generate enough power to power it twice over.

Let’s take the above example of the Vogtle nuclear plant, and assume we were to put all of that $27 billion into wind turbines as well.  Assuming that each turbine costs $4 million to install and has a capacity of 2 MW, that means we could install 6,750 turbines for the cost of the nuclear plant, giving us an installed capacity of 13,500 MW.  Actual numbers will probably be lower, given that the wind does not blow all the time, but that’s the theoretical maximum.  According to Wikipedia, the new reactors will have a capacity of 1117 MW each, giving us  a grand total of 2234 MW capacity.

Assuming my math here is correct, it makes much more sense to build wind turbines than to build a nuclear plant(at least in the US).  I suspect(but don’t have the numbers to back it up) that long-term costs are also lower for turbines, since I don’t think that they need much maintenance, plus you don’t have a problem with guarding spent fuel.

If we throw solar in the mix as well, that also has some interesting numbers.  According to Dominion Energy(pg 19), a solar plant array lifetime is 35 years, with one year for construction/destruction takes it to 37 years.  Given that building the Vogtle plant is at least an 8+ year project, it doesn’t seem very feasible to continue on the path of nuclear.

Conclusion: nuclear, while not a bad source of power, has quite a few practical problems compared to modern wind and solar energy.  Of course, each power source has its own pros and cons.  This is not intended to be a fully exhaustive comparison of all energy sources, so you may want to take this with a grain of salt.