It has threatened to start wars and it has (arguably) finished them; its effects and influences can be found throughout our world today; it has nearly limitless power for creation and destruction; and according to some people it may be our only hope. This week (and the next one too) we are digging deep into the controversial world of nuclear power generation. Over the course of two episodes we'll explore the basics of this technology (which is coincidentally where most other podcasts and videos seem to stop) and go from there to really truly explore the pros and the cons - including plenty that you've probably never considered. Is this technology our best hope for a carbon free future? Or is it another example of too many promises and technological optimism clouding out the realities of our situation?
All this and more in a special two part series on everything nuclear power.
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(We know this is a crappy automated transcription, we'll fix it soon!)
Thank you Alexey for completing this amazing transcript!
[0:05] I'm David Torcivia.
[0:07] I’m Daniel Forkner.
[0:09] And this is Ashes Ashes, a show about systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment, and if we're unlucky the end of the world.
[0:19] But if we learn from all of this, maybe we can stop that. The world might be broken, but it doesn't have to be. [0:33] Here we go.
[0:36] So we don’t have anything funny or fun, right? That’s not like a funny bit of music or something.
[0:43] You know David, a week or two ago, can't remember which episode, you made fun of the US government for rebranding natural gas exports as ‘molecules of freedom’. But David, what you don't realize is that in 1953 US President Dwight Eisenhower announced the formation of “Atoms for Peace”, a program aimed at encouraging the development of nuclear technology around the world.
[1:17] So what are you saying, Daniel? That the US government has always deserved to be made fun of?
[1:22] No David, what I'm saying is that these puns, these play on words, if you will, form a long proud tradition of energy policy and perspective in the US government which is no laughing matter. [BOTH LAUGH]
[1:45] I don’t even know how to respond to that…
[1:47] Speaking of laughing matters, you know David, we humans, we sit here in our fancy chairs and we click-clack on our fancy computers and we like to think of ourselves as being technologically advanced. You know all this research and money and time that we have spent develop nuclear technology, our Atoms for Peace, this is an example of our high intellect and creative capabilities, would you agree?
[2:12] I'm not exactly sure where you're leading me, Daniel, but it seems like a setup of human epic levels of hubris.
[2:20] No, just we are advanced, right? We invent technologies, right?
[2:26] Sure, yeah, we invent stuff.
[2:28] Ah, well David, you're revealing your ignorance once again because what if I told you that we humans were not even the first to invent a nuclear reactor? 'Who was the first?' you might ask. Well, it was none other than the Earth herself, that's right, David, just under 2 billion years ago, you know, hop and a skip back into our historical past, a few nuclear reactors started up beneath the Earth's crust on the western coast of Africa in modern-day Gabon, and these reactors generated power for a few hundred thousand years.
[3:04] When you say generate power, what type of power are you talking about here? I know you're not saying that this is like producing a 110-volt power or 220 or anything, you're talking like heat, right?
[3:18] Right, I mean we humans have simply applied nuclear power to the generation of electricity, but the Earth had no goals of such a simple ambition, it simply generated nuclear power because it could.
[3:33] And you're sure this is not like an ancient aliens scenario where two billion years ago we were visited by our alien overlords who built these reactors as a gift for future humanity to discover to unlock the secrets of the atom.
[3:46] I mean if that were the case the aliens were quite a few years ahead because I don't think we even existed at that time, David, so.
[3:54] You don't think so? You don't think we were two billion years ago? Way to stick to conventional ideas of archaeology and the civilization that the man wants you to think is true, Daniel. I expected better.
[4:06] Well, let's get back to the more important question which is how did the Earth do this? And as we'll talk about, you know, uranium occurs naturally all throughout the world. And in this particular region, there was a high concentration of uranium which then became inundated with groundwater. And that groundwater acted as a moderator for slowing down the speed of isolated neutron particles, something we might expand on, and this slower speed of these neutrons allowed them to interact with nearby uranium-235 isotopes causing them to become unstable and then undergo fission which is basically just an atomic explosion, on the atom scale of course.
[4:51] Some might say the atomic scale.
[4:53] Some might say that David, but not me. So this tiny explosions released more neutrons which then interacted with other nearby uranium-235 atoms causing a chain reaction that persisted for hundreds of thousands of years. Now you might also be asking why could this not occur today. At the time, two billion years ago, uranium-235 occurred in nature at higher concentrations: specifically, around 3% of all natural uranium was the 235 isotope. And that is actually the ideal percentage to reach critical mass of this isotope when it's inundated in a neutron moderator like water, and it's why when we enrich uranium today we actually have to bring up the concentration of uranium-235 from about 0.7% which is its current natural makeup because of the fact that it is half -lived away, so to speak, over the past 2 billion years. We actually bring it up to 3-5% concentration in the enriched uranium we use as fuel for our thermal nuclear power reactors. Another fact that made this natural reactor possible is a fact that ambient levels of oxygen in the atmosphere were much higher back then and that increases the solubility of uranium in water which likely led to greater concentrations of it in this region.
[6:21] I'm actually sort of aware of this natural reactor, Daniel, I was playing dumb here. I think one of my favorite parts…
[6:28] That's because you always read my notes, Dave.
[6:30] My favorite parts of this is the fact that it was naturally able to regulate itself. So what prevents it from becoming a runaway reaction besides the fact that the uranium percentages of 235 were, you know, not 20% like we typically need on a nuclear weapon but eventually could build up to that with the generation of isotopes. But what was interesting was as this groundwater sets in and begins regulating this neutron reaction that causes the larger nuclear fission to happen, Daniel, eventually it starts heating up cause it's generating all this excess energy which is why and how we run a nuclear reactors today to generate electrical power via a steam loops and turning generators. Well, as this heated it up it would eventually boil up all the naturally occurring groundwater here, it would turn to steam, it would empty out, and then the reaction would stop because you didn't have the regulator there anymore. And then as it cooled down the water would trickle back and the reaction would start once more. So, it was a naturally occurring, naturally regulating process which is really interesting. No meltdowns. So, I guess nuclear power is really safe.
[7:37] In fact no humans died as a result of this nuclear reactor.
[7:43] Close the book, end of the episode.
[7:47] You know you said you talk about it being self-regulating but what about the waste, David? This is one of the major concerns we have with the man-made nuclear reactors of today. And it turns out that this site is a useful case study for people trying to research the potential for underground storage of our nuclear waste. Because the radioactive material left over from this natural process is still safely tucked away in the ground right where they were produced and haven't really moved at all in the past 2 billion years when they were formed. Meaning, perhaps we will find a way to store our own radioactive nuclear waste in a similar pocket underneath the Earth's crust where they can decay well out of harm's way.
[8:31] It's such an interesting story, Daniel. This whole episode is really interesting. This has been one of the most fun things to research and read about, and, I mean, I love nuclear power, I think it's incredibly interesting. I have mixed emotions on the application of that and we'll talk about that through the course of this episode, but I mean it's just been fun reading about this, this technology, it’s really incredible, it's amazing how we've harnessed this fundamental force of the universe, and we’ll talk a little bit more about just a very basic: what is nuclear power, what is nuclear fission, what is fusion, all that stuff in just a moment, I know we threw out a lot of 235-stuff to immediately get started. But I mean just for a second let’s marvel at this in a way I guess that was sort of happening back in the 1950s when we were in the atomic age when everybody was talking about nuclear power as this "Atoms for Peace" story you were just discussing there, Daniel. And the idea that we would be liberated and the world would be drastically improved through the application of this nuclear technology in every single little component of our life. And people came up with some crazy ideas, have you seen some of these, Daniel?
[9:36] Crazy ideas for nuclear reactors, I mean like nuclear-powered cars and nuclear-powered cellphones, David.
[9:43] I don't know about the nuclear-powered cellphone, but I mean we’ve always had an interest in radiation and the novel applications of that. I mean you've seen those photos of the past when we have first discovered radium and other technologies, other minerals have a glow in the dark. People were just like casually painting them onto watch faces, and of course, all of them would get cancer later as well would those who carried the watches around, the same thing happen with x-rays: you'd like go to the shoe store, and they have like an x-ray machine there, and you would just like stand on it, it would x-ray like straight up through your feet, of course, into your genitals and would give you like a...
[10:19] Yeah, we don't need to use a yardstick to measure your feet, let's just...
[10:23] Yeah, just x-ray! Let's see how your foot is actually bidding in a shoe, not that it’s exactly radiation in the same sense we were talking about here. But the whole thing is interesting in just the way that we discover this novel technology, we eventually realize it's killing us, but in the meantime, we have a lot of fun with it. And that that's really what the 50s and the 60s were: people were designing cars, there were plans for commercial airplanes that were powered by nukes, ships, home nuke units – the Soviet Union especially was really excited about this and they built nuclear plants all over the place and they built a lot of novel test nuke items that the US only planned but never actually constructed but Russia did, they have still to this day, you know, nuclear ice breakers, a lot of nuclear ships outside of the military, the US is basically limited to only the submarines and the aircraft carriers that are nuclear vessels. But there were a lot of experimental nuclear ships in Russia, nuclear lighthouses placed just all over it. And it made sense especially in Russia because much of Russia is isolated and out in the middle of nowhere. And so trying to maintain supply chains of bringing out coal or oil or other forms of energy to these areas in order to generate power is difficult to impossible, but if you could just load up a nuclear plant there and it would be set for 5 or 20 or 60 years, then that was awesome! Cause you could have this power in places that were far off and not have to worry about the logistics of maintaining that power going on all the time. And then you could build up towns and civilization there, so it was really seen like ‘we're going to change the world, this is opening up new frontiers in a way that we haven't had ever a chance before in our lives and we're going to really radically make the world a better place.’ And then things got a little more realistic once this honeymoon period passed, and we realized, ‘you know what? actually, nuclear technology is hard, it's expensive and there's a lot of drawbacks, even if there are a lot of positives at the same time.’ And we're going to go over all this over the course of this show, nuclear is obviously a very, how would you say it, Daniel? It's a hot topic issue? People get very heated on one side or the other.
[12:28] A lot of controversy.
[12:29] Yeah, both pro and against.
[12:31] But you know, people might be asking why are we doing a show on nuclear power? Because there are a lot of podcasts, there are a lot of articles on the subject, so let me just get this out of the way for any of you who want to listen to another podcast on nuclear power, let me just sum it up for you. Nuclear power is controversial, there was the Three Mile Island accident in the in 1979, the Chernobyl accident and of course the 2011 Fukushima accident. This caused a lot of public outcry. Are there risks to nuclear power? Well, there certainly is radiation, is radiation dangerous? Well, it can be. But you know, we can't look at the past because that was old technology, now people are inventing new technology, so I guess we'll see! And closeout. Have you ever heard one of those before?
[13:16] Yeah, like literally every single podcast, every news report, every documentary, every little video on YouTube: they're all the same thing like made for it for different nuclear power companies or environmental groups – whatever. It's really interesting just like how unified and sanitized these stories that are put out all the time. And I mean I came into this episode not sure where I stood on nuclear power. I don't know if you did either, Daniel. And I mean there’s still at this point pros and cons that we’re going to go through this over the course of this episode, but we really tried to approach this as neutrally as possible which is weird that I'm concerned about this more on this nuclear power episode than some of these other controversial topics that we've addressed. But it really, there's so much animosity on both sides like we're going to be called shills for Big Oil, we’re going to be called shills for Big Nuke because everyone picks and chooses what they want. It's a loaded thing. Recently a Gallup poll in 2016 found for the first time more Americans are against nuclear power than for it. I ran some informal polls just of my immediate friend group on Instagram, on Twitter and I have, I don’t know, about 40 or 50 people reply and about 80% were pro-nuclear power, 20% against it which was much higher than I was expecting, I was sort of surprised. I don’t know if you ask anybody, Daniel.
[14:37] Well, a lot of people I talk to just kind of said, ‘hey, I don't really know, you know? I don't know enough about the technology, there's a lot of risk, but I trust the various regulatory bodies that we trust these types of things to.’
[14:50] Well, maybe that's a good way to intro just a very basic overview of some this technology. We're going to start talking about, you know, what is nuclear power? And then from there discuss maybe some of these reactors and explore further into this subject.
[15:02] Well, let me explain to you David just the basic process here, so: you have protons and you have neutrons, right?
[15:09] And electrons.
[15:10] Okay, well, we're not talking about electrons.
[15:12] I’ve got all these other things, I’ve got quarks, I got neutrinos, Higgs boson.
[15:19] What you mentioned being a little bit neutral for the show, but you know what is not neutral? It is the electrical charge of a proton, right David? And all protons have an electrical charge and it's the same electrical charge. What happens when you bring two things together, David, with the same electrical charge?
[15:37] You mean like two positive things? I guess they repel each other.
[15:41] That's right, so then we have the question: how does an atom keep its nucleus together?
[15:47] You mean because it has all these positively charged things that are held together along with all these things that carry no charge but they should be pushing each other apart?
[15:56] Yes, exactly. Well, David, I'm glad you asked because the answer is: the nuclear force. Also known as the strong force which is a fundamental force of the universe much like electromagnetism and gravity itself. And what's interesting is that the nuclear force is maximally attractive at about one fermi meter which is 1 quadrillionth of a meter.
[16:18] That's good to know.
[16:19] Yeah, and it just so happens when two protons are one fermi meter away from each other the force of attraction with the nuclear force is more powerful than their electrical charge is repulsive. They are trying to get away from each other but that nuclear force is bringing them together. But then I know what you're asking, David. Well, if the nuclear force applies in this way, and it does apply to basically anything that comes within one fermi meter of itself or of something else, why in the process of just particles flying around through our universe and coming to a contact with each other, why is everything just not being accumulated into a giant ball held together by the nuclear force?
[16:56] Yeah, Daniel, why? That is exactly what I'm thinking, so tell me why is there not just a giant ball of matter, of everything?
[17:05] Well, I'll tell you, unlike the electromagnetic force which is infinite in distance: theoretically two particles can repulse each other, you know, million years, million miles away from each other, it's just that that force becomes exponentially weaker the further away they get from each other, the nuclear force is not like that. The nuclear force actually has a range, in fact, if you were to bring two particles together on a distance of 0.7 fermi meters the nuclear force actually flips and starts repelling them, and if they get 2.5 fermi meters away from each other that nuclear force no longer has any attraction. And so what happens is that as these particles come together the nucleus of the atom gets bigger and bigger and it starts to reach the outer limits of that nuclear force. Meaning that the ability for the nuclear force to hold them together is being outpaced by their desire to push themselves apart. And that, David, is why we cannot have an atom that is over 100 protons because it becomes so unstable that they just push each other apart.
[18:16] Well, I guess to be fair you can have those atoms but they almost instantly decay into something else because we do have things on the periodic table above 100, 115 I think.
[18:27] A lot of those are man-made though and we create them in like huge particle accelerators and like you said they literally exist for like half a second and then they dissipate.
[18:36] Half a second will be huge.
[18:39] A fermi second, I don't know.
[18:42] A fermi second, one quadrillionth of a second and they're gone.
[18:45] What are we up to? We’re up to 118 on the periodic table from this periodic table I just pulled up.
[18:50] And if anybody has heard about nuclear power you know that one of the most common fuel types is uranium. And it just so happens that uranium has 92 protons making it on the upper end of that 100 proton limit, and in fact, uranium is quite unstable as a result.
[19:06] So it's big heavy atoms what you're saying and it's already at the limit of say, ‘don't put anything else on me or else, you know, I'm getting close to blow.’
[19:16] Which is why all it takes is a single neutron travelling at high speeds but not too high to hit the center of that atom and you get fission. Unstable, the nuclear force cannot contain it, the atom splits releasing energy in addition to another neutron which can then go and hit another atom and you get a chain reaction and so forth.
[19:37] So, what is fission? I mean, I hear that word a lot, Daniel, so I'm playing dumb cop here, tell me what fission is.
[19:43] Fission is just that, it's the splitting atom’s one nucleus into two separate nuclei, right?
[19:50] But what do we get out of that? If we're just breaking atoms apart doesn’t it just leave us with two smaller atoms?
[19:56] Remember how I said protons want to repel each other? Well, that desire to repel each other is potential energy. Remember from your Physics 101 class: as you know a cart sitting at the very top of a roller coaster represents potential energy because it is about to release a whole bunch of kinetic energy. Well, that's exactly what these atoms want to do, they really want to explode releasing a whole bunch of energy and heat.
[20:22] As an aside, that potential energy thing is stuck in my head for forever and every time I walk up any set of stairs all I can think is, ‘man I sure am acquiring a lot of potential energy right now.’
[20:32] I hope nobody pushes me off and converts that to kinetic energy.
[20:37] Yeah, that literally plays in my head every time I walk upstairs: my brain is broken. So, now your brain is broken, listeners, you are gonna be stuck with this too.
[20:46] Yeah, so every atom is progressively walking upstairs, and when we hit it with a neutron, it falls over and releases that potential energy as kinetic energy which we can then harness by heating things like water, generating steam which can, in turn, turn a turbine which generates electrical energy and so forth. But one little tidbit I want to just mention here, we talked about that natural nuclear reactor and how being inundated with groundwater allowed chain reactions to take place, and that's because, for uranium-235, the most common isotope that we talk about in terms of nuclear fuel, a single neutron travelling at its fast pace very often when it comes into contact with a uranium-235 atom will simply be travelling so fast that it passes right through it and causes no fission. And that's why we introduced what is known as neutron moderators, very often this is just water, where we inundate nuclear reactors and our thermal nuclear power reactors in water because that acts to slow down the speed of those isolated neutrons so that they have a higher chance, when they come into contact with uranium-235 atom, of being absorbed disrupting that strong force and causing fission.
[22:02] Exactly. And there are a number of moderators that we use besides water: liquid sodium is a popular one. And to be fair there are also other types of nuclear plants that do not use this moderation technique, they are called fast reactors and we’ll briefly mention them later. But this is the way that most reactors that are in service right now around-the-world are constructed. So then the really important takeaway here, as Daniel talks about: when we are releasing this potential energy is that it's a lot of energy. And while on the scale of a single atom it might not be that much, when you scale it out in these chain reactions and you start talking about large amounts of atoms like you might find in a kilogram or several kilograms of product, we are talking limitless essentially amounts of energy. And in fact, It's about, just to put this in perspective, say you had a kilogram of coal or a kilogram of a fissionable product that you were performing fission on, like say a uranium-235, you would be able to release two and a half million times more energy from fission then from burning that coal product. [23:03] It's a lot of energy and this is why we had the development of nuclear weapons which could allow these chain reactions occur in a runaway state by using higher concentrations of these products: so with uranium-235 instead of 3-5 %, you'd see that something like 20-30% which allows these neutron reactions occur much faster and detonate as you see. And we all know the power of a nuclear explosion. So these are just really tiny nuclear chain reaction but done in a way that it's slow enough, it's controlled and we can utilize it for generating power. Sort of the same way I guess that early vaccines were a weak version of a viral infection, it would give us time to maintain it and build up whatever we need from it versus just like getting somebody smallpox and seeing what happens. I mean not exactly but it's a good way to think about it for a larger a conversation of what is the difference between nuclear power, fission power and a nuclear detonation.
[23:59] Well that's why, you know, one of the main concerns with nuclear power development is the way it's so easy to contribute to nuclear proliferation of weapons around the world because the process of enriching uranium from its natural 0.7% concentration of the isotope we need of 5%, well, you could quite easily in this process just go ahead and enrich it to 20% as you mentioned and siphon some of that off for the use of weapons. And so that's why we see the controversy over things like an Iran's nuclear industry where they want to develop the technology for electrical power generation but other countries are saying, ‘well, hold up, if you can do that then that means you can also produce weapons of mass destruction.’
[24:44] And on the other side is that some reactor plants will also generate this material that can be used for nuclear weapons and again we’ll go into that. We’ve sort of simplified some of this basic exclamation, there's different types of nuclear forces: strong force, weak. But for the functions of this show, I think what we said is accurate and clear and helpful. And so maybe now when we sort of understand what nuclear fission is, and throughout the course this episode when we're talking about nuclear generation of power we're discussing specifically nuclear fission which is the separation of these atoms, like Daniel was talking about, to release that potential energy versus nuclear fusion which I'll briefly mention and I will be sure to mention that we're talking about fusion, not fission, which is the process of combining atoms, smaller atoms into bigger ones and releasing energy in that process: this is the same thing that the sun does. But it's a different technology even though it is exploiting these nuclear forces just in a different way. That is not what we're talking about when we say nuclear power it is nuclear fission. So maybe we should talk about the types of reactors that we have all around the world that are generating much of our world power.
[25:54] Yeah let's briefly talk about the different types of reactors because one thing that is fascinating to me and two other people I've talked to about this is that at the end of the day what so much of our energy generation comes down to is different ways of heating up water into steam and turning a turbine and even our most advanced nuclear power plants essentially just do this, right? And the most popular form of nuclear reactor we have falls into the category of thermal nuclear reactors which, to simplify, is just the use of a neutron moderator like the one we talked about. And under this category, we have pressurized water reactors and we have boiling water reactors. And these essentially do the same thing but in a pressurized water reactor our core is surrounded by water that is kept pressurized so it cannot turn into a gas, this water is heated by this nuclear energy generation, that pressurized water which is now superheated gets pumped into a steam generator, a separate compartment where water is sitting, the pressurized water heats up this other water which then turns into steam, that steam is redirected to a room with a turbine, that steam turns that turbine and then that generates electricity. And then, of course, these water sources just get cycled back to the process. And a boiling water reactor is basically the same thing except for the water that immediately surrounds the reactor core is allowed to turn immediately into steam which then turns the turbines. And then that steam is cooled. And in fact, you know those huge cooling towers that you see like from The Simpsons where all this steam is coming out? That's actually just where this superheated water goes: they drop it from the top to the bottom so that it can be cooled by the surrounding air releasing all that steam that you see going into the atmosphere, and then in that cooled state it gets recycled back into the nuclear reactor core. But those are just the basic reactors, David, why don't you fill us in on some of the more interesting reactors out there and maybe even some of the ones that we haven't seen yet.
[28:05] Well, I don't want to drag this out too long cause there are so many different types of reactors and they get like really nitty-gritty in the differences between them, they have different moderators or they have slightly different cooling or loops, so I'm just going to really focus on the big ones. [28:21] So the most common type of reactor here is, of course, the pressurized water reactor utilizing light water which is just basically regular water. These plants are very common, they're fairly easy to build because there's a lot of time and money that's been put into researching them, in large part because this is what the Navy wanted when they were designing reactors for their submarines and for their aircraft carriers. And the reason why is because when you're in the ocean you have a large amount of just regular water readily available for you to cool your reactor. And so they realized, ‘hey, you know, like if we could figure out a way to build a nuke reactor that is just utilizing this a regular old water, then we can very easily have these submarines and craft that can travel all around the world at enormous amounts of distance without having to refuel and only have to worry about eventually coming out for food or to exchange other necessities that the sailors on board might need. So we poured billions and billions of dollars into this technology, figured how to make it small, fairly reliable, and because of that, it is the most common type of reactor around the world. You'll find as you go through this nuclear story that a lot of the decisions have that are made in terms of the civilian nuclear area when you're generating power are just side effects of somebody trying to figure out what how can we use this technology for the military, and now that we have this military funding and research like maybe we can spend some of this off for the civilian sector. [29:47] And there's a lot of it with the material that’s used, the choices to use certain types of uranium because they're byproducts of the refining process of the materials being used to create nuclear bombs: all these things are because much of the nuclear landscape today is because of this military consideration. We want to build bombs and we need nuclear reactors for our submarines and carriers, therefore, we're going to create this type of reactor. And that means that research in a lot of these other reactors I'm about to go into have lagged and are now only starting to finally catch up, even though many of them are much more appropriate for civilian use than what we see today. But I'm getting ahead of myself. So most of our stuff is light water, pressurized water reactors. There are some reactors especially in Canada that are utilizing something called heavy water which is interesting it's 2H2O which is two hydrogens per two oxygen.
[30:40] That's 2 much H2O.
[30:42] Or alternatively D2O, D is it deuterium which is a hydrogen isotope. And this just means that instead of just their regular H2O model molecule you have this extra thing there that makes it a little bit heavier, and it is a better neutron moderator in this process. Heavy water is naturally occurring, something like 1 in 4000 to 3000 molecules of regular water has one of these special heavy water things so you can extract it from large amounts of regular water, say by spinning it out of your centrifuge, of course, you have to have very sterilized water before you can even do that. And when we were building nuclear plants and nuclear bombs for the first time you were seeing the construction of all these heavy water plants. And during World War II there was a lot of intrigue and night raids blowing up different countries heavy water plants to prevent them from being able to build nuclear weapons at the time cause they thought this was one of the only ways in order to construct these nuclear materials at the time that we have figured out more since then. [31:40] To this day still Iran, if we bring that up, has constructed heavy water plants that are heavily sanctioned, they are limited in how much they are allowed to export to create every year. This is one of the choke points in designing and maintaining and reaching nuclear power now even if you're not building a heavy water plant, it still is important for some of the process used to get there. The other of course being centrifuges which are used to refine uranium from that 0.7% naturally occurring 235 that you mentioned, Daniel, up to the 5% or so percent that you need in order to maintain fissionable material, and you do that by just spinning it and, you know, this one weighs more so it moves out to the side. And there's a lot of new research going into these types of plants: there's a new one called the European pressurised reactor that's very exciting. The first one just went online in China, they're building a couple and in Europe right now these are Generation III+ type reactors: they should be safer, they should be more efficient because the big problem with light water reactors is that they're not very efficient, the first ones were producing energy of only 1-3% of the total energy that we put into it with this uranium. But later ones are getting into higher efficiency gains as high as 30-40% on all the paper plans. We need less nuclear material for them, we’re able to generate more power or we can just build smaller plants in order to generate the same amount of electricity, all of which is good. But these new plants are plagued with problems, they've been slow, they are way over budget. And that seems to be a continuing story when we're talking about the design of new nuclear types of reactors. I mentioned that these were Generation III+ reactors, so we sort of see reactors broken down to Gen I which were the first research stuff, Gen II which were the very early reactor boom when people started building these commercially for the first time.
[33:26] And what comprises most of the reactors around the world today.
[33:30] And most of these reactors were built for 60 to 75-year lifespan. Lifespan that some of them are starting to run up towards, they are seeing their licenses either extended or decommissioning plans are starting to proceed forward for them. These reactors tend to be more unsafe, they tend to be much less power efficient and they tend to be more expensive to run though they were cheaper to build than more modern plants. We are now currently at Gen III / Gen III+ type reactors, I don't know if there's many Gen III+ even running at the moment but the things that are being built lately are these Gen IIIs which are safer, are more efficient, need less material, are more resistant to nuclear proliferation, that is creating material that can be used to create nuclear weapons. And the future is Gen IV plants which are either radically different or much safer, we won't start seeing these until probably 20-30 at the earliest and these many the designs are supposed to be basically meltdown-proof, supposed to be basically impossible to create proliferation material from these. And if we're going to continue pushing the new clear path this is where the future lies. And many of these designs are some these alternative type reactors which I'm about to go into. [34:40] So one of the terms you might have heard before when we were talking about nuclear power and one that always comes up a lot when people, especially nuclear advocates, are talking about some of the problems that nuclear faces, is something called a breeder reactor or a fast reactor. And this is a very different type of design for constructing a nuclear reactor in the case that we mentioned those neutron moderators we needed in traditional reactor types, breeders and fast reactors forgo that. And it means that it's burning this fuel in a very different way than a traditional reactor, and so that means you utilize different fuel in different percentages than what you traditionally would and you also get different types of waste coming out of this process, some of which can be reused in other plants in order basically to start generating fuel from the plants that are generating energy anyway, and you can create this closed-loop where you don't even need to mine new fuel in order to power the plants you already have because nuclear reactors do need to be refuelled every couple of years, it's not just something you building it runs for forever, there's upkeep, they have to mine new stuff, refine it and put it in the plant to maintain it and keep it working. There weren't many breeder reactors in existence: France had one or two in their history, they've been shut down, though the Russians have designed a couple of new types of breeder reactors, fast reactors that they are testing right now and will enter into the market commercially very soon. They're very exciting in the way that they offer this chance for us to utilize some of the weapons that were trying to decommission in a way that doesn't mean we have to just store them but instead can turn into something useful, in this case, electrical power.
[36:15] Yeah, fast breeder reactors are interesting. Number one because it eliminates that neutron moderator that we've talked about which allows you to have smaller, more efficient reactors. And like you're talking about it enables you to use a lot more diverse sources of fuel including the waste that's left behind for from more traditional forms of nuclear power generation. And again going back to the purpose of this neutron moderator, neutrons travel so fast you have to slow them down to increase the chance that they will interact with the uranium-235. So in fast breeder reactors if you want to have a chain reaction without this neutron moderator you have to increase the concentration of uranium-235 so that when a fast neutron that's not slowed down does interact with the atom, there are more surrounding atoms for this fission to interact with causing a chain reaction. Now, this is expensive and one of the reasons why it has been prohibited for us to implement fast breeder reactors is because the fuel is more expensive to enrich but also they're more expensive to design and to operate these reactors. But once you get it running, like you're talking about David, the waste that’s generated can then be reused as additional fuel which dramatically cuts down the amount of time that we have radioactive waste in our environment from thousands to millions of years to just maybe a couple hundred.
[37:43] Yeah and that cost of fuel, that economics of producing the fuel at these stations actually need to just produce energy is one of the major components of this larger story of why we have nuclear power the way they do. Once again, we already had these refining capabilities for creating nuclear weapons so if we can design plants that utilize the same sort of material just at lower percentages then we should build those. And when we were utilizing different types of fuel that means that there needs to be new investment in the tune of billions, tens of billions of dollars in order to refine that fuel new way, it just never made these plans economically viable which is why we haven't seen them constructed. The same way that heavy water plants tend to be safer and they be more efficient in utilizing the fuel they put into. Which is why Canada built them but they built them on the presumption that uranium would cost more than it actually does. The costs of uranium mean that we didn't ever need to build more efficient plants to utilize this fuel in a better way when we could just say, ‘fuck it, you know, let's just burn what we have: it’s easy, it's cheap, it's not a problem. Buy one thing that we always hear what I always hear when I talking about nuclear power now especially with people who are just really gung-ho and excited about this technology is something called molten salt reactors or liquid fuel thorium reactors.
[38:56] David, these reactors are much much different.
[39:00] Yeah it's a totally radically different design.
[39:03] I saw a YouTube video.
[39:04] They don't even use uranium, yeah?
[39:08] I saw YouTube video on this, some guy was explaining how the reactors they were designing are the future. And so typically, you know, in the reactors we use today we mine this uranium, we enrich it and then we manufacture it into these long rods which we then insert into the nuclear reactor and then, of course, we have control rods and the control rods absorb neutrons so you can actually kind of control the speed at which a chain reaction occurs by just inserting the control rods or lifting them up once these uranium rods aren't doing their thing. But a thorium nuclear reactor, David, doesn't use any of that nonsense, okay? They take liquid thorium
[39:49] To be clear, liquid thorium: thorium's a metal and so liquid thorium is it really hot melted metal.
[39:55] Yes, so it's really hot and then they encase it in a ceramic ball about the size of a pool ball, you know like a billiards ball that you use when you play pool at the pool hall, you know I'm talking about? So that's nothing like a rod, that's totally different.
[40:12] I mean that is a very specific type of one of these designs and there's a lot of different thorium-based reactor designs. The ball thing is a little bit new to me, typically I've seen the designed in a single loop system or two-fluid system. But that sort of reminds me of a pebble-bed reactor which I’m not going to talk about today. [40:35] Thorium is exciting for a number of reasons and they did not all ball related. Thorium is another radioactive element but it is one that is widely available, there is much more thorium available then uranium or plutonium, the other elements that can easily be turned into nuclear fuel, and what's more important thorium reactors have much less waste than a traditional uranium-based reactor. And it can run in a much safer way like you mentioned, though there different models for this, that are much more difficult to get a meltdown, that the plant basically just shuts itself down when you get to a critical stage instead of exploding like we seeing something that's utilizing a pressure system or one of these similar types of reactors. [41:18] So because of this has become a very popular meme on the internet where people are talking about nuclear power they say, ‘oh yeah blah blah blah, but the future is Thorium or LFTR!’ You probably have seen this LFTR: liquid fuel thorium reactors. To be fair, there are other types of molten salt reactors though the thorium one gets the most attention because of these advantages of utilizing thorium as a fuel. Its ability to very easily be found, the better waste products from it and also the fact that you can't turn it into fissionable material in order to build nuclear weapons. So it’s very popular for Internet rows because of this and they’ll go on and send you their favorite YouTube video, like I guess that you watched Daniel, saying that the future’s thorium, check out this stuff, it's so great, it plugs itself, it's got balls, it's amazing. And the US did do research on this, they actually built a molten salt reactor at Oak Ridge in Tennessee which is one of our largest nuclear research facilities. But then we stopped doing research into thorium for decades. [42:15] And it was relegated sort of to a side project that universities would work on whenever they had spare time or somebody's passion project that it sort of died off. There are number reasons why that's the case: one of them is because, as I mentioned, as Oak Ridge was developing these different nuclear technologies, they wanted things that can be turned into weapons. And because there is no secondary use of the ability to refine this product to reutilize the waste for something useful for the larger military economy, which we discussed last week, which is so important to the way that the United States sees basically everything, research on this was dropped. And that's what at least you'll hear from the LFTR fans especially. The parts they leave out is that while we were able to create these reactors to work on a small experimental scale the problem is LFTR and this molten salt style of running a reactor is extremely difficult. [43:07] The molten fuel is extremely caustic, it runs at extremely high temperatures something like 700°C, and it also has a problem of making the material that it is encased with constantly bombarded by neutrons because of these chain reactions that are occurring, Daniel. And this neutron bombardment, the combination of the high temperatures and the fact that it's extremely caustic mean that there aren't many materials that can contain this stuff. And while it can work for a little bit while you're running experiments on it, in terms of designing a plant that can utilize a closed-loop system for 50-60-75 years, materials science hasn't figured out anything that can contain this yet. So the problem here is trying to commercialize this product into something that doesn't need to have the loops replace every 5 years because they get brittle from the bombardment and crack and then leak liquid fuel everywhere. And of course, this wouldn't be as bad as a traditional meltdown but you can't have a design that either needs to be basically totally rebuilt every few years in order to keep it from bursting everywhere or just put up with these cracks.
[44:12] Well, I think this is just something that gets overlooked with most discussions of innovative technologies which is: we can design something that is really interesting and really novel, but once you try to scale that up and you're asking a question will where are all these special alloys, where's all this very rare material, these minerals, these metals that we need to make this technology possible. When we want to scale it up where are they going to come from? And very often that means going to some region where there's a lot of violence and imposing our political will on the people and somehow extracting that from beneath their feet and leaving them in worse shape than they were before.
[44:50] Yeah, I mean that's a really good point. And well first off we would have to identify what these alloys are in the first place because we haven't figured out materials yet that can be utilized for this in a non-experimental way but playing out to commercial thing, we don't know what it would cost, we don't know where these elements would come from. So they would probably be at least in part where rare-earth elements like you mentioned. And those almost entirely come from problematic regions of either human rights violations or are just awful environmentally in the way that we extract and refine them. And so we at this point started sort of decentralizing the violence of creating these things, and we'll talk about the associated deaths with different types of electricity generation in a minute, but this would be a type that would never find its way into a report because it's down the supply chain, because it's been decentralised and that's one of the really great things our economic system does and that's the decentralization of violence. We centralized everything, we centralized capital, we centralized control over all this stuff but we decentralized violence to push it as far out of sight as we can and so it enables all these systems to run in a way that is cost-effective economically. [45:51] And cost in economics really at the end of the day is the central conversation about the nuclear generation. But I think it's a really good point that you bring up here, Daniel. I hope that we put a lot more research into this, we solve these materials science problems because if we can figure out the commercialization of a thorium fuel reactor then nuclear power can be in a much better place than it is right now. There's a lot of research going on at the moment, China's investing a lot in it. They have some experimental reactors that they're constructing and operating. There're more that are being designed. India's nuclear program is very heavily depended upon the idea that when they get to the third tier of this program, they are currently in the first, they will transition entirely over to thorium reactors in large part because they have almost no uranium reserves but they do have large thorium reserves and they would like to be energy independent and this would allow them to do so. But again the technology is not there: China, India, they are estimating like maybe in 20-30 we could have experimental stuff running at a scale that we can start talking about commercializing this process but you won't see liquid fuel thorium reactors or thorium-based stings or these molten salt reactors, which are using traditional materials but in a molten salt way which run against the same materials science problems, up until commercially speaking 2040 optimistically, 2050 maybe realistically, if ever. [47:09] As I said, there are a lot more other types of reactors here, there's a lot of ones that are only experimental and aren't really worth talking about yet because they never been scaled up in any sort of significant way. [47:19] There's a lot of reactors that had startups behind them and that you can find a bunch of amazing YouTube videos about how they're going to change the world and them the company that is behind them... turns out the technology didn't work and they went out of business. You can find some technologies that are promising the world but haven't been able to ever show that they're capable of doing things that they claim. Bill Gates is sponsoring company called TerraPower, that's one of these groups, and they just had a big setback with these terrorists that are going on, that they were going to build some stuff in cooperation with China, now they no longer can. And so the future of the production of new reactors seems very much continuing down just refining these designs we've already had. Many of these reactors designed in the late 80s, early 90s and finally getting them to constructed today because this is just a process that takes a really long time, sort of like building an advanced military fighter: you start designing it now, that means maybe it will be flying in thirty years. And a lot of these reactors are that way too. So we design it now, in 10 or 20 years we’ll have an experimental one built and another 10 to 20 years after that you'll have the first commercial products being built. So many of the reactors that are being built today as new technologies Gen III+ and Gen IV were designed in the late 80s and early 90s. And that's just the fact of the matter that this is something that takes a lot of work, a lot of investment and a lot of research, a lot of trial-and-error to make sure that we're getting it right and doing it so in a safe way. It's not a quick technology, and we can't come in today and say, ‘oh, I've got this great idea, let me just develop it.’ That's how you get disasters.
[48:54] Disasters-shmasters, David, nuclear power has the potential to give us a lot of power. And in fact, it already does: in 2017 10% of all the energy produced worldwide came from nuclear power generation. And that was just from 450 total reactors around the world or 449. And we are projected to double this generation soon as we currently have 54 reactors under construction around the world with another 480 or so that are either planned or proposed. Last year in 2018 a whole 19.3% of the power in the United States was generated by nuclear reactors. So that's a benefit. But there is another benefit, David, that I think you should consider which is: you mentioned disasters and we'll talk about some of the mistakes that have taken place, but some scientists will actually make the claim that nuclear power in our implementation of it has actually saved lives when you compare, you know, the amount of lives lost as a result of nuclear power generation versus those that were lost from the air pollution that comes from our greenhouse gas-emitting coal, natural gas and other fossil-fuel-burning power plants.
[50:10] Yeah, I'm going to just interrupt you for a second cause I know you have some numbers and then whatever. But yes, this is something that comes up a lot, especially online in nuclear discussions. There is a very large perceived fear of the dangers of nuclear power and we sort of gloss over the dangers of oil and natural gas and burning coal which are in themselves very deadly and we’ve talked about this actually a couple times on the show. And this is very fair, we don't think about these things, air pollution is one of the largest killers of people on Earth, period. And we did a whole show on air pollution that the variety of problems it cause, not just in terms of eventual death but also things like Alzheimer's, there's been some links to diabetes – all sorts of diseases that we seeing now explode seem to be linked at least in part to air pollution, UN calls it one of the most important health crisis ever. [50:57] And obviously a large portion of that air pollution, not all of it, is from energy generation, from these dirty fuel sources, especially coal. Coal also itself does release some radioactivity by the burning of these products which are themselves slightly radioactive, it turns out there's a lot of things around us all the time that are radioactive: bananas being, of course, the popular example because bananas are slightly radioactive. Maybe if you eat enough you can, I mean like a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot of bananas, you can give yourself radiation poisoning, I mean like obscene, I mean like force-feeding bananas like, but it is possible. Nuclear plants, when they're operating correctly really are fairly safe in terms of radiation, coal plants release much more radiation to the people around them. And so the misguided fears about like, ‘oh they’re building nuclear plant around me, I'm going to get like a radiation poisoned.’ You know, if everything is working fine, you're not, you're going to be safe. And that is a good misconception to clear up because there are legitimate concerns about nuclear power, but the ones that most people have are incorrect. And in my head, I see this very much as like similar to those GMO arguments when people are freaked out about the fact that the editing DNA or whatever when the larger concerns that you should have against GMO-type crops...
[52:15] Is the fact that seeds are being turned into intellectual property, which can then be forced upon people, you know, local seed banks have been put out of business intentionally, and of course, a lot of these GMO seeds require a bunch of pesticides just to be possible, so you're taking a diverse agricultural space and turning it into a very chemical-dependent monoculture system that also enslaves farmers in massive debt.
[52:45] Exactly. Especially the monoculture one for me, I think that's really what gets me. Because that causes not only this loss of diversity but also this massive insect death and it's part of the reason why we see 60 to 75% of insects disappear over the past few decades. People are mad at GMOs. And that's valid and the business behind them. But they're mad for the wrong reasons. And I think in most cases when people are scared or hesitant about nuclear power, it's for these wrong reasons though there are legitimate concerns which I will go into once you tell us how many lives we're saving by utilizing nuclear power.
[53:20] Well according to this paper published in Environmental Science & Technology in 2013 called “Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power”, the authors calculate that between 1971 and 2009 1.8 million deaths were prevented by the use of nuclear power which was the opportunity cost of increased coal, another fossil fuel burning power sources. They say the air pollution, they talk about greenhouse gas emissions leading to death from climate change, and so their conclusion is that we should not increase natural gas power plants but we should increase our nuclear power if we want to solve climate change and also save lives.
[54:09] This is a pretty good paper, it is one of two papers we found that actually tried to associate a number of deaths with coal and natural gas and these dirty generation techniques while comparing it to actual deaths of nuclear generation, and nobody has done a study on affected life years and I'd love to see that but there are a couple problems in this paper for me when I read it. One of the things especially, it's linking deaths to potential climate-change that's going on and it makes a false equivalents of solely CO2 emissions, X parts for million to number of degrees above pre-industrial levels and this is something that's easy to make a mistake up because the IPCC does do this in terms of trying to make their story as simple as possible. But if you're trying to really gather up all the data and how much people's lives are affected by this technology you can't just look at this very simple like X number of parts per million equals this much warming, especially when you're talking about dirty generation, and the reason why is because of something we talked about on the show before, but I’ve just seen some papers that establish more information on it and that's a process called global dimming. You remember this, Daniel?
[55:18] Yeah that's what all the contrails and, you know, cloud seeding that a lot of our airplanes and cargo ships are inadvertently creating is actually preventing some of the solar radiation from warming our planet and that if we were to suddenly ground every airplane in the sky we would actually experience an immediate warming of our planet.
[55:39] Yeah, exactly, it's this aerosol effect that's from a variety of sources: burning a fuel on airplanes, especially the burning of dirty fuel, this bunker oil on cargo ships, something that is going to be stopped soon with that European passage of banning this fuel, and it's going to increase temperatures by quarter degrees centigrade as soon as that happens and the nobody figured that out. [56:02] A large portion of this is aerosols and specific chemical emissions from these natural gas and coal plants that basically make the Earth has a higher overall albedo. And this is a topic that we keep coming back to, albedo is how much energy is absorbed vs how much is reflected, and this global dimming is the process of releasing more of these products into the air ensuring that the amount of sunlight that hits the surface is less than it would be without them. And if we were to snap our fingers today and turn all of our dirty generation plants that are burning coal, that are burning fossil fuels and replace them with something relatively clean like nuclear and if we pretended that there was no CO2 cost associated with construction of these plants or the mining of the fuel or whatever: we are magic, we’re doing the imagining example here. Well, typically on the older reports IPCC would have said that's about 0.6 - 0.7°C of warming instantaneously which puts us right at 2°C right now, Daniel, right below it. But recent papers that have come out said, ‘oops, we underestimated the effect of global dimming, it's about twice as much as we thought, the actual number if we snapped your fingers into this we would see the temperatures jump 1.3 to 1.5 degrees centigrade basically instantaneously. [57:21] So in this papers example where they're equivalating like, ‘we should get rid of all these dirty fuel generation plants, replace them with nuclear and we will be able to keep the temperatures down and this number of people will be alive because of this process’ – well, they’re wrong, because if we replaced everything with nuclear power suddenly we're going to be above 2°C instantly, not saying that this means we should keep burning coal but it is something that we need to be conscious of when we’re talking about what do we do, what plans do we have. Does this mean we’re going to start geoengineering and spring aerosols in order to make up for the fact that we’re decommissioning these coal plants? Or what do we do here? There's really no conversation of this. I mean I'm getting really nitty-gritty on this, I don't know why I'm spending so much time taking down this paper, it is worth reading. Other things it doesn't take into account is how long it takes to build a plant, you know, the process of shifting from coal, natural gas, it just assumes we could do it all instantaneously and these many lives would be saved because of that. Very interesting read, but the lives saved aren't as high as these papers would suggest when you actually start taking into account the feedback loops and the pros and cons and the realistic timelines of this stuff.
[58:35] That brings us, David, to some of the risks associated with nuclear power generation. While we're on the topic of climate change, while the Fukushima meltdown was not a direct result of climate change and in a way, this is actually worse for us because it means we couldn't even predict the fact that a naturally occurring event could cause a meltdown like this and these naturally occurring events will only become unpredictably worse as climate change progresses, nevertheless the fact that this plant was flooded caused a lot of regulatory bodies around the world to start questioning the ability for their own nuclear power plants to withstand a similar events, and in particular the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission asked plant owners in the US to evaluate their risk to flooding going forward, and 90% of them said they are at risk for climate change-induced flooding that their plants were not designed to withstand. Specifically, 54 US plants are not prepared for the future flood risk that is incoming, 53 of them are not designed for our present-day risk of high rainfall, 25 of them won't be able to handle the floods expected to occur from adjacent rivers and so on, there are more, but you get the idea. [59:49] But what's interesting to me is that this risk is more than likely underrated since the plant operators themselves were the ones who evaluated not only their own preparedness but were also allowed to make their own projections about how climate change would impact flooding for their plants. And so, in addition to that, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not requiring plant operators to update their evaluations of risk going forward. And the kicker to this is that the NRC even refused to establish any binding requirements based on the risk projections that these plant owners did provide. [1:00:27] And when it comes to risk, David, this is a big one for me. When we really get down to brass tacks here and we talk about should we implement more nuclear power, should we decommission plants, should we emphasize renewables over nuclear power generation, although some people will refer to nuclear power generation as a renewable source of energy, these are the types of things that I have to consider: that our own government, our regulatory body that oversees nuclear power generation in the United States recognize that there is a risk, that Fukushima is a cautionary tale, that we don't always design our energy infrastructure around possible natural disasters and so what did they do? They said, ‘well, okay, if you own a plant, you make your own internal evaluation of risk, go ahead and just make your own projections of how climate change might impact you, right? because power plant operators are the perfect people to evaluate climate change risk, and I'm being sarcastic there if you couldn't tell, and then based on what they told our regulatory bodies the response was, ‘okay, well that's good to know,’ and we did nothing about it, we're just basically trusting that these for-profit companies will invest their money wisely to prepare for something that could occur down the line which will cause a meltdown or cause radioactive material to seep into the environment or whatever it is. And so this doesn't give me a lot of confidence about our commitment to keeping these technologies contained and safe from harming the environment and the public.
[1:02:05] Those were really great points, Daniel. I want to circle back to that in a little bit, especially the idea of these larger disasters and the failure of the organizations that are responsible for trying to protect us.
[1:02:16] I've got more to say about it too.
[1:02:18] We will. And I guess it’s the part of the show when we start sounding really anti-nuclear, but really that larger nuclear conversation is that 'yeah, nuclear has risks, but look how it’s been so far,’ which is the one big argument and the second one is: ‘and we have no choice, this is the only type of power that does generate enough power and does it in a way that is consistent.’ And maybe we glossed over this a second ago when we talked about the pros of nuclear power and I don't want to underemphasize this point and how important is. But there is no other power generation technology outside of hydro, which I'll talk about in a second, that generates consistent baseload power which is to say that all power that we need all the time is consistent, we can estimate it, we know it's always going to be there and then on top of that one can add or subtract power based on the current needs of the grid cause remember, as we talked about in our episode about the grid, you can't just create surplus power, you have to sort of always keep the amount of power going into the grid as the same that's coming out: it needs to be very closely matched and it's difficult to do, and it's really hard to do with technologies that you can't count on, so things like wind, things like solar, where the input is always changing, the wind is always changing, clouds are coming in front of the sun, you have days, you have nights when either you're not generating power at all or weather patterns make that generation very different. All of this means that it's very hard to make sure they have a consistent load on the grid. And sometimes this is why you hear stories where like, ‘oh, people in Germany were being paid not to generate power,’ and that's because the grid is overloaded, there's too much power going in, so they have to shut stuff off disconnect it, you hear weird things like that happening. [1:04:01] The only plants that consistently can create this type of baseload power are nuclear, are coal, are oil, are natural gas, are hydro, and of those only nuclear and hydro are what we see as clean technologies saying that they can create this power without releasing carbon dioxide and other noxious gases into the atmosphere. And hydro for the most part is fairly maximized at this point, all the places that we can build out hydro without drastically upsetting ecosystems, environments more than we already have are built out. There's not a lot of good places left so we can't really increase hydroelectric power too much but nuclear power you can, in theory, build in many places. [1:04:41] Though as Daniel mentioned you typically tend to want to build close to a large body of water that allows you to pull in this liquid for a cooling loop to either create the steam or to maintain a larger cooling for the plant itself, especially with these light water reactors. But that is something that can actually be environmentally harmful. In addition to being threatened by rising sea levels because you're building so close to these large bodies of water typically or, if you're building alongside rivers, as we see changing weather patterns, these flooding patterns get much more dramatic and out of control, so that's at risk even if you're not on the place that would typically be threatened by a higher sea levels. Climate change can still be an issue there. But in terms of local environmental damage hydroelectric energy gets a lot of criticism for, a lot of valid criticism for just basically drowning places and leaving it up to, “oh well, you know, the plants, animals, they will figure it out, fuck’em.” Nuclear power is not clean in this process either. And oil and gas really get most of the attention here, there's some funny propaganda about windmills killing, you know, tons and tons of birds, which is true and it's valid for bats and things. But compared to buildings, you know, it's not a big difference, we've been killing birds horribly for a long time, they get trapped in lights...maybe we’ll do an episode on birds, Daniel, I have a lot of bird facts.
[1:06:02] Domestic cats kill about 2 billion songbirds a year.
[1:06:06] Well, look at this: if we're talking about numbers here, we have a plant that powers much of New York's power called Indian River, it’s upstate on the Hudson, I don't know, it’s maybe 45-minute train ride, you can see it as you going up, maybe less than that even, it used to be three reactors, it decommissioned one in the 70s, there's two left. The plant is currently slated for decommissioning next year and then again the following year for the third reactor. We’ll talk about more of the decommissioning process in a moment, but when I was doing research into this plant, because it is so close to me, one of the things I found was an environmental paper talking about the types of localized environmental damage this plant does. And Indian River is not a great run plant and this is one of these things that I think touches on what you talk about Daniel where we trust these officials to be protecting us and keeping us safe, but the economic realities and the actual just day-to-day operations of these plants oftentimes or anything but. [1:07:01] Indian River has lots of cracks in some of their reactors, their waste pools have cracks in them, they’ve seeped into the water level contaminating the area with the radioactive material which is bad for obviously the local environmental life and people who are close by and also concerning cause it's literally built on the Hudson River. But the water they pulling from the river in order to run through their direct cooling plant is, you know, it's piped through the plant, it’s heated up, turned to steam, then it's condensed back down, shipped back into the river and then gone, sent on its way. And, you know, it doesn't pick any radioactivity in this process, in fact, it's extremely purified through this, but it comes in the water extremely hot and additionally the intake of this process is devastating for local life. This plant alone kills 1 billion fish and fish larvae every single year just through this intake process. And that's not counting any of the other environmental damage that's done from its radiation leaks, from the operation of the plant itself, just the act of taking in water is killing a billion fish and fish fry annually. [1:08:09] Which makes that number about windmills look positively ridiculous, cause this is a single plant, you know, we multiply this number by hundreds of times, there are 450 plants worldwide there is 50 more under construction right now, that number is going to be doubled but to 450 for the next couple years of plants that are currently being planned and will be put in place. Soon we’ll have a thousand plants worldwide. Most of these are built on some source of water and most of them are causing dramatic environmental effects on that water, but because it's in the water, it's something we don't pay attention to, we don't pay attention to marine life nearly as much as terrestrial life and so the environmental slaughter at these plants have in the local area that they're built aren't accounted for, they are not concerned, and it's only due to organizations like Riverkeeper where I found this original report which is someone that we worked with before on this show actually, Daniel, these types of things come to life. So the reputation that nuclear plants have for being environmentally friendly outside of the radiation concerns really aren't well earned when you start getting into the nitty-gritty of it. Especially, so allow me, I decided to take this line of thought even further and say, 'well, if we're talking about the unseen side of this stuff, what is the actual CO2 emissions of a plant throughout his lifetime?'
[1:09:23] Well, let's see what we have to consider, David. When you cause uranium to undergo a nuclear reaction there are no greenhouse gas emissions so checkmate.
[1:09:32] Well, that is I think the math a lot of nuclear fans do but.
[1:09:38] Also this podcast is accepting donations from the nuclear industry.
[1:09:43] As well as from a Big Oil and also the renewable industry, so please fund us and we will show for you.
[1:09:49] But unless you were trying to include more than that, David, perhaps the manufacturing of nuclear reactors, perhaps the mining of uranium itself, or perhaps the greenhouse gas emissions that go into decommissioning a plant which can take 20 to 60 years.
[1:10:05] Yeah exactly, this is the entire way that you calculate the actual, full what the energy industry calls lifecycle emissions. So this is everything, this is from the process of designing, of building the plant, of all the concrete that goes into building of a nuclear plant, which is a lot and concrete is a major CO2 emission source, in fact, one of the largest ones worldwide, the process of mining the fuel, the process of fueling it, of maintaining it, of all the oil and fuel involved in that process throughout its lifetime up to when you shut the plant down, you start decommissioning it, blah blah blah. But they do this math not only for nuclear power plants but also conventional power plants, oil, coal and natural gas, different types, different technologies there, solar, windmills, gasification, geothermal – all these different types of technologies of generating energy. There are people who do the math for all this to figure out, well, how much are we actually costing in the full lifecycle creation of this process, are we getting more energy out then we're putting, are we saving more emissions then we would if we were using alternative technology or more traditional technology like just burning coal. And the answer, in the end, is, you know, yes actually, a nuclear plant does save on CO2 emissions compared to a coal plant and it does save CO2 emissions compared to natural gas, but it's not as much as you would think. [1:11:25] And there are some differing numbers for this and there is really only one or two good papers that really integrate everything, there's a lot that are put out by the nuclear industry which tends to leave out major steps of these processes. [1:11:37] What you get in the end is that a nuclear plant is probably generating between 112 and 160 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour generated over the course of its life which is a 60-year timespan for the most part. Which is pretty good because a traditional coal plant is going to be something like 1.2 kilograms in that same time. So this is almost 10 times less CO2 emissions generated than a coal plant. [1:11:59] We don't really build normal coal plants anymore, we’ve really transitioned over to natural gas and we’ve really transitioned not just to a straight burning a natural gas, but things like combined cycle gas turbines and then adding carbon sequestration technology to those on top. So if we take a modern plant compared to a modern nuclear plant: that is a natural gas CCGT CCS-style plant, okay? This is what they're building now if you're hearing someone build a natural gas plant. The carbon lifecycle emissions for that plant is about, over the course of 60 years, 200 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour generator, so basically that's 50% to maybe 80% more than what a nuclear plant is releasing. So at that point, you're not that much more environmentally friendly even in terms of the CO2 thing which is the biggest advantage nuclear power has over these alternative style things plus the power you’re generating is significantly more expensive than these alternative styles. Nuclear power is just about the most expensive power you can create and that's not even accounting the fact that modern plant construction has exploded in cost and as much more expensive than it used to be even though we have new technologies and things.
[1:13:08] A new plant is something like 20, you can get upside 20, 30 billion dollars.
[1:13:13] Yeah, well, I'll talk about new plant construction in just a moment but it's really exploded. So there's a great report, Lazard Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, it's the de-facto industry-standard explanation of how much energy cost for a variety of things. If you're an energy nerd, this is a great report, I'm sure you're already aware of it. We’ll link to it on the website, it’s really fascinating and it's pretty and easy to read, and they break down different technologies based on the actual cost from low to high and then give you a range of in-between on average. So nuclear for each megawatt-hour generated you are talking probably between 97 and $136 per megawatt-hour with most plants costing $124 per megawatt-hour generated. A natural gas plant is going to cost something like $68 to a $100 per megawatt-hour generated, gas combined-cycle $52 to $78, IGCC maybe $96, very similar in price to nuclear power generation. The only things that are more expensive than nuclear power in terms of creating power are either, gas peaking plants which are small plants for a very specific type of energy generation that nothing else can really replace or diesel reciprocating engines which fill the same type of niche that gas peak plants do. So not only is nuclear not competitive in terms of dollars and, in fact, one of the least competitive and getting less competitive as time goes on, unlike these other technologies which are getting more cost-competitive, especially renewables, which we'll talk about in just a moment. [1:14:37] But you're hardly saving any actual carbon emitted in this process and it's just because we’ve hidden the cost of these carbon emissions through the construction and decommissioning and mining of this fuel that we don't see it, I mean like I said modern natural gas plant is only going to emit 50% more carbon, even though it's directly burning this fuel than a nuclear plant does and, I mean, obviously we shouldn’t be emitting any carbon now, we'll get to that, I guess, in a moment. [1:15:05] These savings aren't nearly as much as they're made out to be in terms of what the nuclear industry would like you to think. And I think that's just really important to emphasize and it really becomes obvious when we start looking at renewable energy which is on the scale of you know 15 to 50 grams per kilowatt-hour generated over the lifecycle emissions. And the cost has just been plummeting, so utility-scale solar installs are something like $58 to $70 for megawatt-hour generated, which is less than half the cost of nuclear power. Wind is also getting down to that same range, geothermal is in the $80s to $90s: all these technologies that are much cleaner, that have much fewer downsides, other than this baseload issue, are much more cost-competitive at this point. And what's really interesting and I think is the death knell for nuclear is that solar with battery storage is now basically the same megawatt-hour cost as nuclear power itself. And there are different environmental concerns with the construction of those batteries depending on what type of energy stores you are using. But when that process cost as much as nuclear power then why are we building nuclear plants? Because you get the baseload cost, you have lower carbon emissions and it cost the same, you don't have the risks of nuclear. I don't understand at that point what the nuclear arguments are any more in terms of at least fission as we know it today. [1:16:29] And that's, of course, disregarding the environmental costs which we just discussed, you know, billion fish annually basically per plant, that is a huge loss of life because of these things that we just never talked about. And at this point I guess I’m really sounding anti-nuke more than anything but all these things need to be said because this is the kind of stuff that you don't hear in these larger conversations cause people, you know, they're not going to spend two hours talking about nuclear power but we should. This is something that is very important to the continued use of energy and technologies around the world. And we're building a lot in the next couple decades and a lot of people want to invest a lot more into this so we need to be realistic about the concerns as well as the pros.
[1:17:08] David, before we continue with your ramblings and my semi-ramblings.
[1:17:13] Uff, you cut me off here, Daniel.
[1:17:16] Yeah, but let's break this up and we're going to do a part 2. And I know we did that last week, although it was over two days, we're going to do this over two weeks and I promise we're not going to make a habit of making the super long episodes where we just ramble on for 3 hours or whatever it is.
[1:17:35] Well, there's a lot to say in terms of nuclear power. I feel like full disclosure is necessary here, Daniel, because we actually did record this episode as one non-stop 3-hour long take. And we got to the end and we're like, ‘we can't do this, we can't do this to our listeners, we can't do this to ourselves to edit this all in time.’ So we're going to pretend that we always planned to break this up and to do parts but I guess I'm giving that away now but we try to be transparent here, so. There's some transparency for you.
[1:18:11] Boom! We are transparent with you, this is part 1 finished and next week will be part 2.
[1:18:18] There's a lot of really good, all the good stuff's in part 2, so like: yeah, now you know how nuclear power works, now you know a little bit about it – but if you want to get to the fun stuff you're going to need to tune into next week.
[1:18:30] That's where the fun starts to get ratchet up, you might even say we go nuclear.
[1:18:36] That's real bad.
[1:18:37] All right, goodbye everybody.
[1:18:38] A lot to think about, but until then, you can find all the references we used for this, and there are many, as well as a full transcript of this episode on our website at ashesashes.org.
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[1:19:33] We've also got a nifty phone number you can call and leave us messages, we're going to collect these and put them in a call-in show someday, whenever we get around to this, we encourage you to give us a ring and leave us a message, that number is 31399 ashes that's 313-992-7437. You can also reach out or follow us on all your favorite social media networks at ashesashescast, and come join our Discord community, it's a great group of people, you can find a link to that on our website, just click the community link and then find the Discord invite. There are tons of us in there, we’re there all the time, so come hang out. Next week we've got part 2 coming up so we hope you'll tune in for, but until then, this is Ashes Ashes.
[1:20:17] Brah prah prah, okay, that's all I know about nuclear power.
[1:20:23] Daniel, like I'm done, I'm not talking anymore, while it sounds good. You know there's two types of nuclear force too, right?
[1:20:34] Strong and weak?
[1:20:28] Yeah, what’s the difference?
[1:20:34] I don’t know. [BOTH LAUGH] [1:20:36] Didn't you hear me? I said that's all I know.