The Nuclear Option

Published by marco on

The other day, I responded to I’ve read the actual reports on Chernobyl. I’ve worked in the nuclear industry by TracyMorganFreeman (Reddit) with three comments.

Nuclear is a Sane Option

The linked comment jibes with my other reading (outside of Reddit, heaven forfend) on nuclear power and safety, as well. E.g. there’s Soonish
The Lost Chapter, Advanced Nuclear Power
(SMBC). It’s a relatively clean power source with a worse reputation than it deserves—on paper.

Unfortunately, the industry that’s attached to it is an absolute public-money-sucking boondoggle full of exploded budgets and shattered deadlines.

There are real problems to solve in using nuclear power to get to zero emissions—making it safer is not one of them.

Even disposal isn’t even close to the problem it was with earlier models. It’s a lot less waste that produced by our current fuel sources (which still provide 90% of power). Crucially, none of it goes into the atmosphere.

Yeah, we need to find somewhere to put what we can’t burn (and new plants would be able to burn more than ever), but we could also just pay someone to take it instead of being surprised that no-one is volunteering to do it for free.

When people who’ve actually read up on nuclear end up supporting it, one interpretation is to assume that every one of them is a sub-IQ, easily swayed sheep with a “hard on” for nuclear, another is that they in the employ of big nuke … or maybe once you know more about it, you learn that the well-known facts about nuclear aren’t 100% true.

Cost Overruns

I totally hear what you’re saying about cost overruns. I mentioned it in another comment as the #1 problem with nuclear. On the other hand, the Pentagon just about choked to death laughing about how worked up we’re getting about a mere 120% cost overrun of only 5 billion dollars. (I’m using the Olkiluoto-3 example above.)

I’m thinking the JSF-35 program over the last 30 years has vastly more overruns than that and it’s barely even flying. This is likely due to the same deep-seated corruption that dooms any large projects like nuclear plants.

Cost overruns—but especially unconscionable delays—are the biggest problem. These are real problems to solve, but are organizational rather than core issues with nuclear safety. It’s entirely possible that we can’t solve them. We’ve never been very good at that. We don’t have much time to learn.

However, something with low emissions and storability needs to jump in to replace fossil fuels. Or … we just stop using a lot less power. That would work, too. Also something we’ve never been particularly good at.

I think I hear the Pentagon laughing again.

Storing Energy and Sustaining the Grid

I, too, am for other solutions, like a drastic reduction in energy use.

I just don’t think that’s going to happen.

We have massive energy requirements, growing every year. We have dirty fuel providing the vast majority of that energy. We have renewables becoming cost-effective and efficient at collecting power, but we don’t have a replacement for the stored-power feature of fossil fuels.

Without stored power, the grid doesn’t work like it works now—providing steady power 24 hours a day. Hydroelectric only works in some countries, ditto for pumping water to elevation.

There are other ideas (storing containers at elevation, then dropping them to produce power; molten salt, etc.), but nothing ready to take over from fossil fuels. Nothing that scales.

To sum up, we can:

  • Reduce usage and free ourselves from the tyranny of the grid
  • Switch from fossil fuels to nuclear (high-density stored power)
  • Come up with some other way of storing power—and fast

We don’t have the luxury of a lot of time for coming up with another way of running our grid. If we take nukes off the table, then when nature forces us to reduce fossil fuels, life for the advanced societies is going to change drastically—but not in a well-planned way.

So, either we use nukes as a stopgap, allowing us to avoid changing energy requirements or we blow up the climate because we can’t stop using fossil fuels or we drastically change civilization by destabilizing the grid that nearly everything we know depends on.

Nukes are one way to arrange for a soft landing for our soft selves in the so-called first world … because we’ve proven so terrible at doing anything else.

I’m not holding out much hope, though.