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Nuclear Energy Pros and Cons

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

The case for nuclear is obvious to us. So firstly we apologize for waiting so long to write this post. Having worked in the industry for almost two decades we have neglected that which to most of you is the most important question of all;

What are the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy?
Key Takeaways:
Radioactive waste:
> Full accountability – Nuclear is the only energy industry that takes full responsibility for waste management, costing this into its product
> High-level waste is securely stored – Some facilities are open to school trips and tourists
> Long-term solutions exist – Finland’s Onkalo facility is built to contain waste for 100,000 years 

Weapons proliferation:
> Credibility – Transparent supply chains and tight international regulations ensure green investments are directed to energy uses only 

Depletion of finite resource
> Fuel efficiency – New fast breeder reactors (FBR) close the fuel cycle making energy 20-50x more fuel efficient 
> Multiple fuels – Both Uranium and Thorium are valid nuclear fuels 
> Abundance – With the use of Fast Breeder Reactors, nuclear fuel reserves are sufficient to power all current primary energy needs for 4x109 years, enough energy to power humankind until our sun dies out! 

Safety:
> New nuclear is the safest form of energy – Since 1990 and the introduction of Gen III reactors, nuclear has accounted for 250x, 4x and 2x fewer fatalities per unit of energy than natural gas, wind and solar respectively
> Low-level radiation – The entire energy industry accounts for <1% of public exposure to radiation

Fresh water use: 
> Limitless supplies – The majority of nuclear reactors use seawater for cooling
> Dry cooling – Waterless cooling technologies exist 

Public perception
> High levels of support – Nuclear is especially popular in Ukraine where the risk-reward is well understood. NPSs are: Ukraine +75, Canada +42, USA +35, UK +21, AUS +17
> Pro-nuclear demonstrations – The Stand Up For Nuclear movement has organised actions across >30 countries globally 

 

Before you read on - we have created an email course to guide you through the process of defining your career path into the nuclear industry. Check it out below:

 

Nuclear energy pros and cons

The convincing case for nuclear is made in many places. However, this is still a much-debated topic and in the main is failing in that many people are still not convinced by, or continue to be against nuclear energy.


There are many advantages of nuclear energy and as with all available technologies, there is a number of disadvantages of nuclear energy. Get Into Nuclear is not positioned to reinvent the wheel or produce unique content, particularly on a topic as this that is much better presented elsewhere.


Cons

  • The initial costs of building a nuclear power plant can be high

  • Radioactive materials need to be managed for a long-time

  • Nuclear is not a renewable energy source

  • Public confidence in the technology remains low

Pros

  • Nuclear energy generation produces zero carbon dioxide - no green house gas emissions or carbon emissions

  • Nuclear Waste can be confidently stored and managed

  • Nuclear can generate electricity in an environmentally friendly way with available fuel to last millions of years

  • The lifetime costs of a Nuclear Power Plant make it a competitive source of energy


We recently came across a podcast from 80,000 Hours (which is a great podcast and website) in which Mark Lynas talked about climate change, societal collapse, and nuclear energy. Below we have cut the transcript in which nuclear energy is discussed.


This is by far the most compelling case for nuclear that we have come across. Give it a listen by clicking here or read the excerpted transcript below.


Nuclear 2.0

Robert Wiblin: Okay. Let’s push on towards talking about specific ways of addressing climate change. The first step, let’s cover one of your preferred solutions to climate change, which, as you’ve mentioned, is nuclear power. In 2014, you published ‘Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power’, which makes the case for a big scale up of nuclear power, more than doubling the number of plants over 15 years. I really enjoyed this book because it covers kind of all of the key issues that you wanted to raise very clearly and very quickly. You could finish the book in one session, which is something I wish was the case of more books. You also just throw in a lot of numbers to really explain why you hold the views that you do. So yeah, in brief, for the audience, can you explain what makes you so enthusiastic about nuclear energy?


Mark Lynas: It comes down to physics, actually, so you’ll like that. It’s really to do with the energy density of nuclear as a fuel, and that’s the key issue if you’re concerned about scalability. You’ve got to find an energy source which provides carbon-free power to a 10 billion strong population, at the same time as people have probably doubled their energy demand, or tripled it, even more, given that most of the world still under consumes in relation to us in richer countries.


Mark Lynas: How do you do that without destroying the rest of the world’s ecology, as there’s not really any other way of doing it than nuclear? Fossil fuels are already very energy-dense, particularly given that they come from underground. Hydrocarbons are an incredibly adaptable and versatile way of powering long-distance transport, for example. Coal is a brilliant way to run industry and to generate power, apart from a few million deaths every year from particulate pollution, and small things like that. But uranium is something like a million times more energy-dense than hydrocarbons, so you can power whole countries with a few tons of the stuff, really, and the materials flow and the waste flows are simply trivial in comparison, and raise no significant environmental challenges or indeed engineering challenges. It’s just doable, and it isn’t doable with any other approach that you can imagine.


Mark Lynas: Renewables are not energy-dense, so you have to cover immense areas of land to capture enough solar power through photovoltaic technology to even go a small distance towards addressing our current energy consumption with solar. And wind likewise. The power density per unit of land area is very low for renewables and very high for nuclear, and the difference is orders of magnitude.

Arden Koehler: So if that’s the case for nuclear or for scaling up nuclear, what do you think is the best argument against scaling up nuclear power? What’s the most likely way you could be wrong about this?


Mark Lynas: The only argument against is a political one, that people won’t accept it, or people won’t want it, so nothing to do with engineering. I don’t think there are any engineering or physics challenges that can’t be fairly easily addressed, and that includes the cost. Yeah, nuclear is very expensive at the moment, but that’s because it’s trying to satisfy safety concerns, which are taken vastly more seriously than any other type of infrastructure project, and therefore require multiple redundant safety approaches, which cost a huge amount. You’ve got to build, I think, the EPR reactor at Hinkley… They talk about it’s like building a cathedral inside a cathedral. That’s the kind of engineering which we’re left with to try to reassure the public that this isn’t an existential threat. What’s that? That’s not engineering. It’s a psychological challenge. It’s a political challenge. The only way that I think it’s wrong is if people won’t accept it, and we waste time trying to do it instead of simply paving over whole countries with solar panels, if that’s the only way that’s mostly acceptable.

It comes down to physics, actually

Arden Koehler: Just to clarify quickly on the cost point, are you saying you think we should have less safety redundancy in nuclear power, or more in the others or something when you talk about this cost being inflated for nuclear, and that being artificial?


Mark Lynas: Well, it is one of the major cost drivers. No one in the nuclear industry would ever say “Let’s save costs by reducing our safety components”. But those of us who are not in the industry can say, “Well, look. Why is it that nuclear has to fulfill this safety concern vastly more than anything else?” Cars aren’t that safe. Nothing’s that safe.


Robert Wiblin: Coal power is not that safe at all. It’s the reverse.


Mark Lynas: Well, no, not only coal, but even wind and solar aren’t that safe in terms of numbers of fatality per gigawatt-hour, or however you want to quantify it. People fall off roofs putting solar panels on, and wind turbines fall apart and whatever, so nothing’s completely safe. Even in the worst-case scenario, nuclear accidents, at least with the type of technologies we’re using, I wouldn’t use Chernobyl because that’s not the kind of reactor that we’ve got built anywhere else. But say Fukushima in Japan, which was about the worst, like a triple meltdown in the context of a much wider natural disaster, that’s about as bad as it can get. How many people died from radiation? Zero. That’s not even on the same scale as Piper Alpha, where the oil rig blew up and killed 150 people or any mid-range industrial accident.



Mark Lynas: But why is it that nuclear has to shoulder these immense costs? Because of this perception that it’s somehow an existential risk. You see this all the time. People say, “Well, imagine if”… A lot of Greens say this, “Imagine if one nuclear power plant somehow contaminated another one, you get this cascading fail”. They actually imagine this is a pathway to human extinction. I’ve never heard anything so stupid, but people’s psychology is so mixed up on this. It’s very difficult to draw a line between what’s psychology and what’s engineering in terms of how you deal with the safety issue, but just to finish up, yes, let’s not have to have a compromise between safety and cost. Let’s move to different kinds of designs and reactors that are passively safe, where you can walk away from them and they will shut themselves down, and there won’t be any release of radioactivity in almost any imaginable scenario. Those designs exist, and they should be available and cheaper than what we are using at the moment, fortunately.


How technology has improved since 2014

Robert Wiblin: In 2014, your main concern was also cost, but there were a bunch of other things you’d like to see improved about nuclear power, as this kind of modular designs, and using different fuels. How has the technology come along in the last six years in terms of cost and safety, and I guess, practicality?


Mark Lynas: Well, if you’re looking at light-water reactors, Hinkley’s thing is at least being built on a schedule at the moment. It looks very expensive because it’s a huge capital cost over a long build, so you don’t start getting payback for quite a long time. The cost of capitalism is really the main issue with infrastructure projects of that nature, but it’s the same for building a bridge or the Scottish Parliament, or pretty much anything, actually. We’re not good at doing that in Western countries anymore. It always looks eye-wateringly expensive to do something big. Look at HS2, the high speed rail. It’s in the hundreds of billions, I think now, in terms of what the projected cost of that is. The Victorians just went ahead and built these things.

Renewables are not energy-dense, so you have to cover immense areas of land to capture enough

Mark Lynas: Cost is a moving target anyway, but some of the small modular reactors and the more advanced designs have come a long way. ThorCon, for example, which is one of the molten salts thorium designs, has got most of the way towards working with the Indonesian government on a prototype and potential build out there, which I think is really interesting. Their design is completely passively safe. They’re looking at a faster route, which I think is about $1,500 per kilowatt in terms of the CapEx, so it’s about a fifth of the cost of any EPR. That’s what I mean. Obviously, these are quoted prices, and you don’t know until you actually do the thing. Even then, the prototypes are the first of a kind cost, which is obviously a lot higher than the nth of a kind cost when you’re doing lots and lots of these things. If our only roadblock that’s in the way of stopping climate change is making nuclear cheaper, I’m sure we can do it, just as what’s happened with solar. Solar is now way cheaper than it was, again, orders of magnitude, than it was a couple decades ago, and nuclear can do the same.


Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So speaking of which, costs of solar and batteries have just come down a lot since even 2014 when you wrote that book, and maybe they’ve been even been coming down faster than people predicted then. Has that made you reconsider at all whether nuclear is really necessary and whether we might be able to do it just with renewables if we had to?


Mark Lynas: No, because the power density of renewables doesn’t change. That’s a physical reality, which is related to the amount of sunshine or kinetic energy that you can harvest from a particular unit of land area. You can get slightly more efficient solar panels, but it’s a few percentage points at most. You’re never going to be able to get away from the fundamental issue of needing to pave over country-sized areas of land to generate enough renewable power to fuel modern industrial civilizations. That’s a fundamental physical reality which is never going to change. It might be slightly cheaper to do that because solar panels have come down in cost, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals. No, I’m not really in a different place from where I was when I wrote Nuclear 2.0.



Robert Wiblin: Couldn’t we just stick all the solar panels in a desert somewhere where practically no one lives, and then put up high voltage lines to transmit them to cities? Can we get much mileage from that?


Mark Lynas: Yeah, but even deserts are ecosystems, and they’re wild areas. When I think it’s Ivanpah, that big solar plant in California in the Mojave Desert was being built, they were bulldozing cacti. They were pulling desert tortoises out of their burrows and sticking them in the back of pickups to be translocated elsewhere where they all died. There’s no such thing as an ecological free lunch, particularly when you’re talking about harvesting power over vast areas of the planet’s surface, which are currently still wild. That’s the opposite of a rewilding agenda, which is what I’m most enthusiastic about, where we need to let go of human impact over as much of the world’s land as we can do while still producing food. Why you’d want to bring energy into a land-use conflict when you’ve already got food in a land-use conflict, I can’t imagine.

And if Extinction Rebellion was to carry through its mandate properly, it would be pro-nuclear.

Robert Wiblin: My overall view is that I’m super sympathetic to nuclear power and what you’re saying, and I’d be really happy to see more plants getting built. It’s crazy to see plants getting shut down early on, and then replaced with coal power in some places. I guess a lot of the common objections that people have around safety and other things are pretty weak, but all that said, I’m not sure whether promoting nuclear power is a top low-hanging fruit way to reduce climate change, I guess for three reasons. Firstly, there’s this thing that solar is decreasing so much, and maybe I’m more optimistic than you that we can find some way to stick the solar panels someplace that people will accept. At least maybe that’s easier than getting nuclear built. I guess if solar cost decreases continue, then maybe it will just end up being cheaper as well?


Robert Wiblin: Then there’s also, I guess I should say Europe and the US just seem to have forgotten how to build things now. It’s hard to get a bridge built, let alone a nuclear power plant. I’d love that to change, but I guess I am not holding my breath, so maybe nuclear power has more of a future in Asia or something, rather than Europe or the United States. I guess also as you said, people just hate nuclear energy so much to such an irrational degree, that the problems just seem really severe. While I’d love that to change, I guess I’m not sure whether making all of these sensible arguments about why it’s actually a good option is going to be enough to get rid of people’s instinctive fear. Do you have any take on that?


Mark Lynas: There’s a lot there.


Robert Wiblin: Yeah, sorry.


Mark Lynas: It comes down to are serious about having a plan to tackle climate change, which actually adds up and is physically possible? I’m putting that question to Greenpeace, to Extinction Rebellion, to you, to the Conservative Party, whatever. If it’s a renewables-only approach, then you’re not serious. It just isn’t conceivable to imagine the kind of materials for those. Yes, you can put all of the solar in hot deserts, but the transmission lines… You’ve got a transmission line, let’s say, between Algeria and Libya. Oh, Libya has just gone. Whoops. There’s energy security issues for that, just as there are with the modern-day oil industry, where we’ve got geopolitical, obviously, conflicts resulting from our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. So yes, you could probably design an outcome where you’ve got most of the Arabian peninsula covered in solar panels, but electricity to the high consuming markets is very difficult, even with high voltage DC, not to mention the security risks of that.


Mark Lynas: Perhaps a better option is for hydrogen production, so to produce synthetic liquid pills using the sort of stranded asset of hot deserts. I know people who are working on that, and I think it’s certainly conceivable that that could be a significant part of the approach. When I try and be physically realistic about the renewables issue, it’s not to say we shouldn’t do renewables. I’m currently involved in launching a campaign called ‘Nuclear for net zero’. I don’t know whether it’s going to happen or not, but we’re just conceiving it at the moment. I’m quite happy to say, “Okay, let’s have in the UK solar PV equivalent to 10 times Hinkley’s fee, so let’s build your one and a half Wales’ of solar. I don’t know quite where you’re going to put it. Actually, it’s not that much. It’s only about two Surreys, actually. Let’s just sacrifice a couple of home counties with solar, by all means, but we’ll still need even a few, well, probably 40 or 50 gigawatts of nuclear as well, and if you’ve got offshore wind, and if you’re going to produce significant amounts of hydrogen in the UK too.


Mark Lynas: So the only way you can get around that is to say, “No, no. Of course we don’t want any solar in… Sorry, we’re going to have to put it all in Algeria”, in which case you’ve somehow got to either move the electricity, or I’m not quite sure how else you’re proposing to do it. Is that more believable than a future where you basically just persuade people to be a little bit less hysterical about nuclear, and get that back into the mix as a much more scalable and hopefully more cost-effective approach? Because, by the way, even with the reduction in solar costs, it’s much more expensive to do it just with solar and wind, just because of the materials you need. Imagine all the steel and silicone and all the rare-earths and everything, all of the different metals that you need to cover over the Arabian peninsula in solar panels. It’s immense. It’s probably many times the scale at which this material flows currently exists for all of the world’s industry.

If it’s a renewables-only approach, then you’re not serious. It just isn’t conceivable to imagine the kind of materials for those.

Arden Koehler: All right. Let’s move on from nuclear power to discuss other promising ways people can help to reduce climate change. What are a few other policy or technology options that you think have the greatest potential to avoid a climate disaster?


Mark Lynas: There aren’t any.


Arden Koehler: So it’s just nuclear?


Mark Lynas: Yep.


Arden Koehler: Okay.


Mark Lynas: That’s why I care. I don’t have a particular strange fetish for reactors.


Arden Koehler: Well, I guess people talk about a carbon tax or these kinds of things. Do you think any of those are especially promising?


Mark Lynas: Those are policy levers that have to drive a technological change. What’s the technology? Ultimately, you come back to the same question.


Arden Koehler: Okay.



Robert Wiblin: You don’t think it would be… Well, I suppose I would think solar R&D, even if you think it can’t go all the way, is helpful as well. Maybe battery technology can help? It just lowers the overall cost of having stable electricity from renewables. Is there anything else on the energy side that excites you?


Mark Lynas: Well, when I said we could pave over the whole of Surrey with solar, that’s assuming that you’ve dealt with intermittency, but that’s just looking at your kilowatt-hours per year, and not how you keep your lights on at night. So batteries, that’s not an issue at all. There’s nothing else. Fusion? Good luck with that. Biofuels? No, that destroys more of the planetary ecosystem.


Arden Koehler: I guess another type of intervention would be negative emissions technologies, so carbon capture and storage, for instance. How optimistic are you about that for making a big difference?


Mark Lynas: You mean carbon capture and storage from burning fossil fuels? What carbon are you capturing and storing here?


Arden Koehler: I’m imagining the atmosphere, but would be curious about the others too.


Mark Lynas: Well, in air capture, your thermodynamic challenges for that are you have to put a huge lot of energy into that process. You’ve got to somehow chemically strip CO2 out of the atmosphere where its current concentration is 400 parts per million, so that’s 0.04%. I can never get the orders of magnitude right… But very diffuse. Then you’ve got to concentrate it, liquefy it, and pump it underground in big pipes in appropriate places, so the scale of that challenge, if you think about it conceptually, is like doing the opposite to what the oil and gas industry has done times two, because it’s coal as well, but decades.

We need enthusiasts. We need engineers. We need innovators. We need activists. We need everybody who’s interested in this issue to be out there and talk to their friends about it.

Mark Lynas: And you think about the size of all of those pipes, and all of those drilling rigs, and all of the rest of it. It’s not going to happen. You’d have to put into that much more energy than was liberated in the process of drilling and burning that oil and gas to start with, obviously because of thermodynamics. It’s like trying to make a wood fire out of ash, right: you’re at the lowest state of entropy. No, it’s not going to happen. No, it’s not scalable. And no, it shouldn’t be a major part of our conversation.


Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I’m with you on that. I guess also, in the meantime, we’ve been burning coal and messing things up, and producing all the air pollution, all the other downsides of coal. It just seems terrible on multiple different grounds.


Mark Lynas: Why would you do it when you’ve still got point sources of emissions, which have really been concentrated CO2 by the millions of tar from single chimneys? In what way does it ever make sense to try and then capture it from the air? It’s 400 parts per million concentration. So you’ve got this strange parallel conversation going on. For me, it’s a kind of psychological denialism, imagining that in some kind of future we get to be inventing magic that can reverse the damage that we’re currently doing every single day.


Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Even magic can’t change the laws of thermodynamics. What about grabbing it from the chimneys of the coal plants? Is there anything to be done there?


Mark Lynas: Well, that’s the methadone option to your heroin addiction.


Arden Koehler: It sounds like an improvement.


Mark Lynas: Maybe. But you’re still an addict, and you still flop around looking gray. Obviously, you can carry on burning coal, and you can put the already concentrated CO2 underground, and that’s being done on a small scale in some places. Technically that’s manageable. You get a significant energy penalty from doing it, and to be honest, the best way to keep carbon in the ground is to leave the carbon where it currently is in geological reservoirs of oil and gas, so it doesn’t make any sense to do that in my view on that, as a large scale approach. We just don’t need to. We’ve got alternatives. We don’t need to burn that coal to start with, and it’s better off being solid, black, a few hundred meters down.