the real issues with nuclear energy — a fresh look

I used to think I had nuclear power all figured out. But recently, I’ve revised a few points. Here’s  what’s up with nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy is interesting and cool because (in order):

  1. It can produce huge amounts of electricity without producing CO2 and causing global warming (it’s environmentally sustainable).
  2. It can produce huge amounts of electricity using fuel that isn’t running out anytime soon (it’s materially sustainable).
  3. It can produce huge amounts of electricity day and night, rain or shine (it’s baseload).

Nuclear energy, in its current form, has the following reasonable drawbacks (in order):

  1. If a serious country has a serious nuclear power program, they can spend the time necessary to get nuclear bomb materials.
  2. The up-front cost of a nuclear power plant is huge.
  3. Nuclear waste is scary and remains so for hundreds of thousands of years, at which point it isn’t scary anymore.
  4. Chernobyl was scary.

The following claims are hogwash:

  1. Special material from nuclear power plants can be stolen by terrorists and turned into a bomb!
  2. We can’t build nuclear reactors fast enough to do any good!
  3. Thorium reactors can’t be used to make bombs!
  4. We don’t need baseload electricity anymore! Don’t be so old school!
  5. But we’ll run out of Uranium in 20 years!

The following supporting claims are reasonable:

  1. The current estimates of worldwide Uranium supply are submitted by individual nations to “the Red Book.” These numbers should be taken with some suspicious due to strong economic motivations to claiming you have less Uranium than you actually do so that you can drive up prices. Currently, they claim that at current demand, normal priced uranium should last for 200 years. If the price goes up, there will be more uranium found. If that runs out, the next generation of nukes will have to be breeders. Then we can run on U-238 and Thorium for 10s of thousands of years, if not many more. Scarcity of fuel is not an argument against nuclear power in general. Stop using it.
  2. Recycling nuclear waste isn’t necessary for long-term sustainability, but breeding is. You can breed without recycling in a once-through breeder. Recycling is necessary, however, to turn nuclear waste into a reasonable form that will be safe in ~1000 years rather than ~1 million. Let’s see that burner reactor, INL and Argonne!
  3. Thorium reactors can all be modified to produce weapons-grade U-233. Proponents often claim that Thorium reactors are proliferation-proof because they don’t make Plutonium! Well, they’re wrong. U-233 is actually a better weapon material than Plutonium. I can disable “automatic denaturing” if I own the plant. I can get around “self protection” with a single Protactinium chemist. The true accolades of Thorium reactors are their ability to do thermal breeding and their vastly superior waste form. Those alone are enough to support these reactors as awesome. Don’t go spreading hogwash. We have enough of that.
  4. “There’s nothing you can do to Plutonium that I can’t undo in my bathtub.” Dr. Ron Fleming always says that, referring to self-protecting Pu from terrorists. He’s basically right – the chemistry is well-known. But he’s going to need a large and pricey bath tub. A nation can definitely do this, but terrorists alone cannot. No terrorist group is going to break into a well-guarded nuke plant, pull the highly radioactive spent fuel out of the pool, load it onto a truck, and drive it off to their covert $4-billion reprocessing facility just to get reactor-grade plutonium. That’s just plain stupid. It’s a lot easier to buy the stuff from some angry country or something. Therefore, worrying about plutonium diversion from reactor sites is silly. Diversion from a reprocessing plant is another story: the hard work is already done there (but the Plutonium is still low-grade). This is why once-through breeders are good ideas.
  5. Baseload power is essential to the stability of the grid. There’s billions of dollars in the infrastructure we have that requires baseload. If you invent cheap room-temperature super-conductors, let me know and I might reconsider. Talk to anyone in the utility companies though. This isn’t even a question for a good 50 years.
  6. Nuclear energy is a better phrase than nuclear power. Nuclear power is like North Korea, Russia, USA. Nuclear energy is that stuff charging our plug-in electric vehicles without making CO2.

You can read more about the good and bad of nuclear at

3 thoughts on “the real issues with nuclear energy — a fresh look”

  1. The proliferation resistance of thorium reactors comes from the unavoidable presence of U232 in the reaction products. This possesses two hard gamma emitters that makes handling purified Uranium generated within the fuel extremely difficult. What is more, it would be nearly impossible to shield the resulting weapon in such a way that people around it would not be irradiated. This would also mean that any weapon produced would be easily detectable. There are easier ways of obtaining weapons grade material that would not result in the death of all your technical staff.

    Solid oxide fuel that can be used as a drop in replacement for Uranium in current light water reactors can be used as a means of burning and denaturing weapons grade Plutonium. This will create a market for this material leading to reduction in our current stock piles, which are and extant, rather than theoretical risk.

    1. This is what I referred to as the “self protection” of the Thorium cycle. The 2.6 MeV gamma from Tl-208 in the decay chain of U-232 is indeed hard to deal with. This makes any ex-reactor handling of Thorium fuels extremely costly and difficult. I agree that it may be difficult to make a bomb out of this material (see item 4 under reasonable claims), but I strongly disagree with the idea that it’s impossible to make bombs from Thorium plants. Solid-fuel reactors would be difficult, as you mention, but not impossible. Just pull pins out after a few days of breeding Pa-233 from Th-232+n, melt them down, chemically strip out the Protactinium-233 before it has a chance to undergo many n,2n reactions and let it sit for 40 days until it decays into quite pure, weapons-grade U-233. This is even easier with liquid-fueled reactors.

      BTW, I’ve been advocating Thorium fuels for years. They have lots of potential to improve nuclear energy. But if we as advocates aren’t careful with our science, we just give room for others to counter our arguments with seemingly sound science. This breeds confusion, misinformation, and inaction. We can put everything on the table (good and bad) and still convince people to use Thorium. So claiming Thorium to be proliferation-proof is not something I recommend. People trust you more if you concede that your idea isn’t perfect. How many perfect ideas were total hogwash? Lots.

  2. Answering point 5, yes, room temperature superconductors now exist.
    Salvatore Cezar Pais has patented a room temperature superconductor. It works by decreasing the activation energy level of the copper via modifying phonons that cause resistance in wire. However, he should be using an environmentally sustainable piezoelectric material other than PZT, as it has lead in it. He’s probably only using that becuase the Navy discovered that too. USPatent# US20190058105A1

    So your points above proving nuclear power is a good future source of energy is good for baseload power, is now mute. All electrical systems, including major backbones of energy distribution, can be retrofitted for RTSC utilizing piezoelectric (vibrational) induced superconductivity. This would eliminate the enormous power wastage, especially in hot countries.


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