40 The Case for Nuclear

The Rational View is a weekly series hosted by me Dr. Alan Scott, providing a rational, evidence based perspective addressing important societal issues.

Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Rational View. I’m your host, Dr. Al Scott. On this episode, I’m going to be returning to nuclear one of my favorite topics, because, well, I think it’s important, I’m going to start a series on nuclear power. Because it is timely, as we’re recovering from the COVID-19 epidemic, and people are considering solutions to the climate change crisis, huge investments are being considered by governments. And if popular opinion directs these investments, then this money is effectively going to be dumped down the drain.

1:23 

And we aren’t going to save ourselves from the climate crisis. Now, I know there’s a lot of a ground surge, a big up swelling of support for renewable energy. This appeal to nature fallacy is very popular amongst the environmental movement, about renewables are not sufficient to displace the huge base load of fossil fuels that we have, and that we need for a modern society.

The scale of the task is immense. And it’s difficult for people to think in terms of the actual math here, but it’s important that you think about it. Think of a world war two production footing. This is what we need, if we’re going to build renewables to support the grid. Now, Mark Jacobson, the infamous MIT researcher who has been pushing for a nightmare 100% renewable energy scenario to support. The world’s entire power grid is responsible for some of this hype. And he’s gone to court to shut down his detractors unsuccessfully, he’s been forced to pay court fees of people that he sued. I found a great review of his renewable roadmap.

The review is called roadmap to nowhere, where they call out some of the insanity in this plan. And here are some of the pertinent details. Over the first 15 years of this 35 year roadmap $1 trillion dollars per year is spent building renewable hardware in the US over 35 years, they build 496,005 megawatt windmills, and 18 billion billion with a Carl Sagan ‘B’ square meters of photovoltaic solar panels on 131,200 square miles of land. Think about that. And the day they lay that last panel over the last square meter of pavement, they need to repeat it all again.

Because the first panels will be 10 years past their useful life at the end of this 35 year roadmap. So this level of World War Two type production would need to be continued forever. And not just in the US. This needs to happen all around the world if we’re to, to displace fossil fuels in rapidly growing places like China, where we’ve offshored most of our production to and this is a huge we basically need to strip mined the world to do this. Solar and wind just aren’t that intense.

They are very diffuse power sources. They need to be spread over lots of space. Public sentiment needs to change and that’s why I’m doing this. That’s why I got into podcasting. I like the Star Trek version of the future and it’s feasible to achieve it with abundant power and automation. I’ve got a cool interview coming up next week with an expert on nuclear power.

 I’m sure you’re going to enjoy it. We’re gonna start off with a couple announcements though. Good news, I’m getting some podcast swag.

You can get some Rational View T shirts. And if anyone’s interested, we’ll have to figure out how I’m going to distribute them to my loyal listeners.

Another cool thing that’s happening is I’m starting a Facebook group for discussion. It’s going to be On facebook.com/groups/therationalview all one word, and I’m gonna have a grand opening on Pi Day, March 14 2021. And on this grand opening day, I’m going to do a Facebook Live for the group members that have joined. And I’m also going to be giving away a T-shirt to one of the lucky group members that have joined by Pi Day, March 14 This year, we do my Facebook Live at 3pm Eastern Daylight Time. And that is the day that we switch over to daylight time. And don’t get me started on why we’re doing that I don’t understand it either.

If you enjoy what you hear from this podcast, please hit like and share with your friends. So every power source has words, if you look close enough, every power source has risks. The key to our going forward as a society in tackling the climate change challenge is a rational evidence based comparison of these power sources.

Nuclear energy has an extremely high energy dense energy density it it’s based on the strong nuclear force, which is the strongest force in nature known to physics, orders of magnitude stronger than the electromagnetic interactions with gut which gov other energy sources are chemical energy sources like fossil fuels.

6:23 

Now this extremely high energy density means that it has a very tiny environmental footprint. It has a tiny waste stream. And you only need to mine a tiny amount of this fuel, relatively speaking compared to these other ones, and I don’t even know why solar power and wind power are called renewable. Yes, the source of the energy is renewable, you’re going to have wind forever, and you’re going to have sun effectively, forever.

But the tons and tons of steel, and wood that you need to mount these things and build them. These are not renewable resources. They’re no more renewable than uranium. And you need a lot more of them, because of the low density of these power sources. And that is one of the main reasons why I think nuclear is better, you have to look at the warts of all of your energy sources.

And it’s ironic, but solar power is not all unicorns and rainbows. It’s not all sun. There’s some shade there. So, I did the analysis, I went and looked at how much energy a person on average North American uses over their lifetime. And the average person uses about 250 Giga joules of primary energy per you per year. So that’s 250 Giga joules is 250 billion joules, the joule is just a measurement of energy from physics. So that sounds like a big number, it is a big number, over a 70-year lifetime, that would be 17 Tera joules, so 17,000 billion joules in your lifetime.

Now, how could you compare different sources, how is nuclear compared to oil compared to solar. So for oil, a person uses about 44 barrels of oil per year at that rate, over a lifetime, this would equal a square pool of oil, one meter deep and 22 meters on a side. And that would give you all of your lifetime energy needs unless you dropped a match in it by mistake. And then you’d be in trouble.

For silicon solar panels at mid latitudes like where were we are in Canada here, you can gather about eight Giga joules for every square meter of solar panels over their 25-year, typical lifetime. So to give you enough, and that’s assuming you’re capturing all of it, and you’re not over producing it, if it’s on the grid, or curtailing it, if you know, it’s a really sunny, windy day, and you have too much renewable power, and you have to just dump the power, we’re assuming you can use all the power that it generates.

So to give you enough energy for a lifetime, you would need about 2100 of these one meter solar panels over your lifetime. And put together these would make a square solar array about 46 meters on a side. So that’s a pretty significant chunk. It’s bigger than your pool of oil. And it’s a lot of material. Now, you wouldn’t just build a 46-meter solar panel because it would die after 25 years and you have a whole bunch of excess power.

You would you know build small sections of it every 25 years until you were dead, which is what these renewable people are suggesting we do for all of society. Now, in windmills, a typical windmill has about a two-megawatt capacity and an availability of what 33% over its 20-year lifetime. And so, with those numbers, you can calculate how much energy you get from a single windmill you can generate About 416 Tera joules, and that’s enough energy for 25 lifetimes.

So, 25 people, a cluster of a few houses can be powered over their lifetime by a single windmill. If you were to gather enough uranium, to power your lifetime with our existing reactors, what you would call a generation three nuclear reactor, which uses enriched fuel, enriched uranium, you’d only need about 24 kilograms of natural uranium, it’s a silvery metal 24 kilograms. For one person. For reference, it’s a little over a curling stone in mass. That’s a Canadian reference.

About one liter in size, because it’s very dense metal. The natural uranium, of course, is enriched for these current generation nuclear reactors. So the the you uranium 235 isotope is only about 0.7% of the natural uranium. And that’s the only stuff that you actually burn in our current reactors, they enrich it up to about 4%. So you really only need about 11 kilograms of nuclear fuel for your lifetime in our current reactors.

11:20 

Now, there’s another type of nuclear reactor called fast breeder reactors. And these aren’t currently very commonplace. These are mainly research reactors, they’re a little bit more expensive to build, but they can burn all of the natural uranium isotopes, they actually get the U238. Which is more common, and you can build it, you can burn it, sorry.

So breeders use all of the uranium. In a breeder reactor, you would only need 100 grams of uranium for the power of your entire life. So instead of the 1% of uranium that our current reactors use, the breeder uses 100%. So it’s, you know, 100 times more energy per unit of uranium.

So think about that. Roughly a golf ball of uranium is all you need, with a breeder reactor, for all of the power that you use, and all the equivalent power that society uses divvied up to you your share of society’s power for industrial manufacturing and transportation. Your share of that is inside a golf ball of uranium. Compare that in your mind to the oil and the wind and the solar.

Think about the orders of magnitude we’re talking here. This is the basic fact that really sets uranium aside. It’s just so much more energy dense. You’re taking Einstein’s equation E equals MC squared, the energy of mass is being basically converted directly to energy or the nuclear fission the energy that’s holding these nuclei together is being released. Now anti nuclear feelings, as far as I’ve come to know them are about an inch deep and a mile wide. And people you know, repeat the same tired, scary words they’ve been told to fear.

Few people have really looked at the issue or spent much time researching because it’s really a polarized issue. And in this case, most people follow their leaders, they don’t spend time thinking. You’re busy defending yourself against the forces of evil, or that’s how it feels to people and I don’t, if you go back to my earlier podcast, you know, the other guys aren’t idiots. They’re not evil people. But when you’re in a polarized situation, everyone feels that the other side is evil.

They’re not evil, but you’re busy defending yourself and not thinking and we need to think and we need to talk. So many on the left in the environmental movement have been convinced by anti nuke non government organizations like Greenpeace or Union of Concerned Scientists that radiation is something to fear and that building new nuclear is bad.

And the reasons are Fukushima and Chernobyl. And they waved these words about like flags, like red flags in there and their followers cower when they hear them. But really, the radiation is not as dangerous as people think. It’s very hard to kill someone with radioactivity, you really have to work at it. Now, the lifetime cancer risk of an average person is about 40%. There’s a 40% chance that you’re going to get cancer in your life that’s significant. It’s really significant.

One in five days deaths are caused by cancer. And this is just without radiation. The fact is that our cells are constantly under attack from various things that mess with our DNA. We have the air we breathe, the oxygen in the air we breathe, is basically screwing with our DNA all the time. And radiation. Yes, radiation is another factor that can screw with our DNA, energetic particles break DNA strands in our cells all the time.

Every cell in your body is having 10s, or hundreds of 1000s of DNA breaks every day, because of radiation and oxygen, and chemicals in the environment. But let’s think about this, let’s put radiation into perspective.

15:56 

Fossil fuels kill so many more people than radiation ever will. When you burn fossil fuels, you put soot into the air, and soot are these microscopic particles of chemicals that get into your lungs and can kill you. And you can measure the concentration of these particles.

And if you want to look it up for your area, go up and look up PM10 or PM2.5. And these are basically concentrations of particles with a size of 10 microns diameter or 2.5 microns diameter and the 2.5-micron diameter ones are the more dangerous ones because they can get into you into your lungs and into your blood vessels deeper.

And for every 10 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5. Your risk of cardiopulmonary death increases by 10%. Between six and 13% is what researchers think. So that’s significant. Right? That’s a significant increase in your risk of death from heart attacks or strokes or whatever cardiopulmonary entails. This is important because let’s compare to nuclear.

 The Fukushima exclusion zone has a current radiation level of between 20 and 50 millisieverts per year. Now, Seiverts are a type of measurement of radioactivity. If you are currently living in the evacuated Fukushima exclusion zone, you’d be getting up to 15 millisieverts of radiation dose per year. That seems scary because radiation is invisible and you can’t see it or taste it.

One Seivert of radiation increases your risk of cancer by five to 10%. So roughly, one Sievert of radiation is on par with a 10 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5. And this is a risk of cancer not risk of death of cancer. So, the risk of death of cancer is going to be about two and a half to 5%. For a one Sievert radiation dose and once Seivert radiation dose is huge.

It’s way over the safety limit that’s allowed. But look at the numbers of risk PM2.5: 10 micrograms per cubic meter is a six to 13% risk of cardiopulmonary death. And a one Seivert radiation risk increases your risk of cancer death by about the same amount, maybe half that amount, you would think that anywhere there is a PM 2.5 of 10 micrograms per cubic meter would be evacuated? Well, you’d be wrong. Now, that would be rational.

There are 2612 cities with PM2.5, over 10 micrograms per cubic meter, roughly half the cities in the world are equivalent risk of death to having a one Seivert radiation dose every year. There are 898 cities with PM2.5 over 20 micrograms per cubic meter. The risk of death by living in the Fukushima exclusion zone is not measurable by modern medicine.

The lowest measurable increased risk of cancer is at 250 millisieverts per year which increases your risk of cancer by 1%. So from 40% to 41%. And nowhere in the Fukushima zone is it that hot. But look at the double standard here. And think about it. One Sievert of radiation. One Sievert that’s huge. I can’t understand. Now there are more risks than just being exposed to radiation.

The real risks are highlighted by the Litvinenko case. If you remember the Russian who was poisoned by the KGB with polonium, which is a radioactive substance that he ingested, and any radioactive substance that you ingest and bio accumulates in your body can continue to dose you with radiation, very high doses of internal radiation over time, and that can kill you. If you get radioactive iodine in your thyroid, this is what causes thyroid cancer in children.

From the Chernobyl event there was something like 4000 cases of thyroid cancer.

20:48 

It’s very survivable, I think, only a few people died from it. But it’s still it’s not good. This is why you take potassium iodine tablets after a radioactive leak, or eat table salt with iodized table salt. It prevents you from getting radioactive iodine in your thyroid and saves you from going through cancer treatment. Iodine has a very short half life though, and is not around for very long, eight weeks it’s gone.

The more dangerous ones would be strontium, radioactive strontium, which can bioaccumulate in your bones and radioactive cesium, which can replace potassium in your cells. Now potassium in your body is already radioactive, you may not know that. And a lot of people like to look at high potassium foods and and try to measure the equivalent radiation dose in bananas, for example. And these are real risks, you need to be careful that you don’t eat radioactive fallout.

But these heavy metals are really never released into the environment from nuclear power plants unless they explode like Chernobyl did. In the Fukushima event, the heavy metals were contained in the containment units, they have these big tanks have radioactive cooling water that they’ve cleared of these heavy metals. And now all that’s left in these big cooling tanks is tritium, which is a naturally occurring isotope of hydrogen in the water. And it’s very difficult to get out.

But the fact that it’s naturally occurring and has very low radiation dose means that it’s not really very dangerous. In fact, there was a Japanese politician who went on the air and drank some of that cooling water to show that the risk was very low, the concentration of radioactivity at water is extremely low and your body gets rid of tritium very quickly.

It doesn’t hang around in your body, so it’s not really a risk. So I’ve dealt with the major Fukushima and Chernobyl stuff, and Chernobyl as well. Don’t get me started. I’ll take that up again. Effectively, people have said the number of lives lost in Chernobyl was in the hundreds of 1000s. This is, you know, Greenpeace and other anti nuclear groups.

The true death toll from Chernobyl is very small, probably less than 1000, probably less than 100. It’s difficult to tell because the background level of cancer deaths is so high, we know that the acute deaths were less than 100. And there’s it’s difficult to see any increase in additional cancer deaths over the background level from Chernobyl and the best science backs that up.

Now I know this is the science not a lot of people like to hear. The other thing that you hear from anti nuclear people is what about the waste? Well, nuclear waste is not a problem that you should be worried about. The proper response is ‘please describe the problem’. Nobody has ever been harmed from spent nuclear fuel in and around an operational plant. It’s really difficult to figure out how one might be harmed by it. It’s stored safely in cooling pools for about five years after it’s taken out of the reactor. And then it’s put into dry casks.

They’re stored on site in the parking lot. And unless you are going and hugging those rods and licking them, you’re not going to be hurt by it. They’re solid metal rods. Maybe they could corrode a little bit then a piece of rust might fall down and be detected by the people that are going through every day and checking for radiation leaks. When it’s just not dangerous.

I see quotes like the following an anti nuclear propaganda all the time. ‘High level nuclear waste presents us with an unprecedented dilemma. poisons that remain deadly for hundreds of 1000s of years.’ But wait, if you had a great critical, skeptical mind and you heard that, wouldn’t you think ‘there’s also tons of toxic materials associated with a lot of industrial processes. Any sort of mining of exotic earth materials for batteries and turbines. And solar panels also include a lot of toxic material. What about lead, arsenic, cadmium, Mercury?’ And then you think about ‘how long do they remain hazardous in the environment?’

25:27 

‘Wait a minute. They’re hazardous forever. So is it really unprecedented that our power has a waste stream that is dangerous?’ No. All power sources have warts. Think about the relative amount of material processed for other power sources, and how it dwarfs nuclear by orders of magnitude. And think about where they’re going to be putting their waste products. And how they’re being handled. Nuclear is the only power source that handles all of its waste products on site and stores them safely.

Fly ash, if you’ve heard about coal plants, coal plants burn lots of coal from under the ground, and some of it has radioactivity in it. Fly ash released into the environment from coal plants has been measured and emits 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant is allowed to based on the safety regulations.

At the same amount of energy, you get 100 times more radiation from burning coal than nuclear plants are allowed to emit. There are resource companies that have actually been considering mining the fly ash of coal plants for uranium to fuel nuclear plants. The concentration of uranium in some of these ash residues is comparable to what they’re mining in the ground for uranium in some cases.

But this was poo-pooed, of course, by the coal people because they didn’t want people to know, as far as I know. So that’s, you know, it’s interesting, it’s not even deadly at that level. Right. The radiation, as I said, is not a problem, even at 100 times more than what the regulations are a nuclear plant is not going to hurt people.

So, coal gets to spew their waste all over the countryside. And all of the waste from 60 years of operation, the lifetime of a current nuclear plant can be stored in a parking lot size facility. What strikes fear into people I think are the images of leaking yellow barrels of waste that we see on The Simpsons. This is what people think of when they think nuclear waste, glowing green liquid, no, no. Nuclear power plants don’t create liquid high-level waste.

This is from residue from weapons developments back in the 50s and 60s. Nuclear Fuel is solid encapsulated pellets. Much of the fear I think for nuclear plants arises from this Cold War thinking this by-product of weapons manufacturing in the mad rush to make more nuclear weapons than the other guy. And this has given nuclear power, a bad name, but they’re different things.

It’s got nothing to do with building nuclear power, new nuclear power is what we need to save us from environmental catastrophe. If you think about the rules for nuclear that they have to dig these underground geological repositories for their nuclear waste, while the coal plants get to spew theirs into the countryside. And they’ve done studies on this, it’s really safe. Storing liquid waste.

Even the liquid waste from the nuclear weapons deep underground does result in a safe solution. Even if the storage site leaked, it would take 10,000 years for traces of that radiation to reach the surface water. And the studies that have been done show that the maximum dose to our distant descendants would be equivalent to about two extra bananas per year.

But folks will say that the waste can remain dangerous for millions of years. What are the costs and lives of future generations? And yeah, we should think about this, we should think about the long-term effects of our current power sources. And I think the bigger risk is the risk of not building nuclear and letting the climate degrade and letting all of the ecosystem diversity decline due to fast climate change.

The majority of the spent fuel has a much shorter Half Life than millions of years. 99.9% of the radioactivity in spent nuclear fuel is gone after about 50 years. The most dangerous by-products as I mentioned before are strontium and cesium and these have half lives about 30 years so they remain highly radioactive for a long time. After several half lives, you know, after about 500 years, most of that’s gone. And the fuel is still about 100 times more radioactive than the initial raw uranium.

30:14 

This is still dangerous, you probably wouldn’t want to put it in your pocket and carry it around. But it’s not nearly the the world ending catastrophe that most greens would make it out to be. So what’s the best solution for the spent nuclear fuel?

What should we be doing with it? I’ve discussed already about how next generation breeder reactors can get so much more energy out of this uranium, if they are built, but if they’re not built, we still want a safe place to put this and we need to address public opinion on storage of nuclear waste.

Now, in the past, I would have said, keep it on site so that you can recycle it. But I think in a political sense, it will address public opinion more if we put it in an approved deep geological repository. It’s a nice contained space where we can have access to it if we need it. Don’t seal it away forever. Don’t backfill it with dirt, because you may need this stuff. But seal it all away down there so that it’s not at risk of hurting people. It’ll make people happier; it’ll make people feel safer.

And it will be there if we need it. Now, unfortunately, we don’t have an approved site in North America to put this, Finland is working towards having their own site open soon. And there’s no reason that the approved sites that they’ve studied so exhaustively, shouldn’t work, Yucca Mountain in the US, I believe there’s one in the Bruce near the Bruce reactor in Canada.

These are stable geological formations, they’ve, you know, salt mines, deep rock formations that have been there for millions, billions of years. They’re safe, this is not something that we have to worry very much about. They’re safe in the parking lots that they’re in now. But people don’t feel safe because of the impression of an unseen danger from radioactivity.

Putting it underground is a great idea. And the reason that these geological repositories are getting flack is public opinion being stirred up by the oil industry and the greens. Because if you get one of these approved, suddenly they can’t say ‘what about the waste’.

Suddenly, their one objection goes away. And then there’s no good reason to shut down nuclear, there’s no good reason to save the earth. So, I urge everyone to support deep geological repositories for the storage of nuclear waste. Let’s tick the box and get this off of everyone’s radar and get going with the process of new, clear, clean energy.

Thank you for listening to this podcast in next week’s podcasting and have an exciting interview with Dr. Chris Keefer, who’s president of Canadians for nuclear energy, and the director of doctors for nuclear energy, and the host of the decoupled podcast.

So stay tuned and thank you for listening. If you’re enjoying what you’re hearing, please consider visiting my Patron page and becoming a patron of this podcast at Patron.podbean.com/therationalview

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