Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Future of Energy is Bright, Part II

To pick up where we last left off, running an industrial economy requires a source of cheap and stable electricity. Electricity provided by wind and solar is intermittent and therefore does not fit the bill. Electricity from coal, diesel and natural gas does work but causes environmental damage, plus these fossil fuels are mostly past peak, are increasingly expensive to produce, and won’t last for much longer in any case. Hydroelectric is a good choice, but all the sweet spots for it have already been tapped. Boutique resources such as biomass, micro-hydro, tidal energy and what have you are insufficient to power an industrial economy. This leaves nuclear energy, but nuclear energy has some major problems.

Thus, there are no good solutions, but this may not be a problem because, you see, without a stable source of cheap electricity there won’t be an industrial economy, and without an industrial economy there will be neither supply of nor demand for any of the above. There will still be demand for firewood, to be met by you wandering up and down a stretch of abandoned highway collecting dry tree branches for your campfire, on which to cook some rodents you caught with a forked stick.

If you find this scenario unappealing and wish to look for other options, there is little choice but to look more closely at nuclear energy. Yes, it has some major problems, but what if these problems have solutions? You haven’t thought of that, have you? But that’s not as outlandish an idea as you might imagine. Huge teams of brilliant scientists and engineers working diligently for decades do sometimes come up with solutions to even the most difficult problems. Clearly, it would be foolish to simply assume that all major problems will be solved, but I believe that it does make sense to try to stay informed about the actual progress that has been made, if only to satisfy your intellectual curiosity, should you have any.

Before we go any further, let me assure you that I don’t have any particular political stance vis-à-vis nuclear energy. I have not flipped from being anti-nuke to being pro-nuke or any such thing. Furthermore, let me state unequivocally that your own political opinion on the desirability or undesirability of nuclear power matters not in the slightest. In fact, if ever I let on that it matters at all, feel free to assume that I’ve gone senile and to come over and shoot me, because I don’t want to be a burden. In turn, if I catch you signing anti-nuke petitions, going to anti-nuke rallies or otherwise making your opinion on the matter known, I will assume the same about you, although I won’t bother to come over and shoot you. My wish is to inform, not to influence. If, armed with this knowledge, you find ways to avoid having to cook rodents on a stick (by figuring out where in the world there will still be power and moving there while there is still time) I will be happy for you.

With these preliminaries out of the way, let me rattle off some key facts about nuclear power that you should definitely have under your hat in order to understand the importance of what’s to follow. Nuclear energy is quite unlike chemical energy in that it is something like 100000 times more powerful: 1kg of nuclear fuel provides as much energy as 100 tonnes of coal. Naturally occurring uranium contains two uranium isotopes: U-235 and U-238. Only U-235 is directly capable of sustaining a fission reaction: when a U-235 atom is hit with a neutron, it fissions into Barium-141 and Krypton-92, which are very short-lived and decay into other elements, liberating much energy along the way. It also emits 3 neutrons, which can then hit other U-235 atoms, sustaining the chain reaction.

Only 0.7% of naturally occurring uranium is the useful isotope U-235, the rest is the (almost) useless isotope U-238. Since 0.7% is nowhere near enough to sustain a chain reaction, a complicated process is used to “enrich” uranium, raising the U-235 concentration to between 3% and 5% (nowhere near enough to make a bomb, by the way) by separating out some of the excess U-238. This is done by converting uranium dioxide, (UO2, also called yellowcake) into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) which is a colorless solid that evaporates at slightly above room temperature. The UF6 gas is then fed into a cascade of centrifuges that separate out the isotopes. The enriched mixture is then converted back into UO2 which is formed into pellets that make up nuclear fuel. This is all based on very complicated, sensitive technology which only a handful of countries have.

The reason U-238 is almost useless rather than completely useless is that under certain conditions it can capture a neutron and turn into Plutonium-239, which is just as useful as U-235 in sustaining a chain reaction. Spent nuclear fuel, in which a large percentage of U-235 has been burned out, contains some amount of Pu-239, which can then be reprocessed into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. It is important to note that plutonium produced by nuclear power plants is useless for making nuclear bombs because the fractions of isotopes are wrong: weapons-grade stuff can’t have too much Pu-240, which is unstable, but the plutonium produced at power plants contains close to 30% of it, and since the trick of separating isotopes doesn’t work with Plutonium (it’s literally too hot to handle) you are stuck with whatever isotope fractions come out of the reactor at the end of the fuel cycle. The total quantity of plutonium recycled each year throughout the world is around 70 tonnes.

The ability to produce useful Pu-239 from (almost) useless U-238 in nuclear reactors stretches out the uranium reserves. The conversion ratio is typically between 0.5 and 0.8, meaning that more U-235 is used up than Pu-239 is created to replace it. This is a problem, since uranium reserves are finite and increasingly difficult and expensive to produce. But if this problem were to be solved and the conversion ratio raised above 1, then the amount of U-238 already produced would be sufficient to power industrial economies for thousands (yes, literally, thousands) of years.

And what if I told you that this problem is well on the way to being solved? Furthermore, what if the other really huge problem—of what to do with high-level nuclear waste (of which there are 250000 tonnes in the world) is also well on the way to being solved? (A way has been found to burn up almost all of it in nuclear reactors.) Lastly, what if I told you that solutions have also been found to the problem of nuclear reactors blowing up and melting down once in a while? (This last one is also a very serious issue. The Fukushima Daichi disaster has been estimated to cost at least $500 billion and has pretty much nuked the Japanese nuclear industry).

I will eventually get around to explaining what these solutions look like. Again, I don’t wish to try to change anyone’s attitude toward nuclear power, mostly because it doesn’t matter. You are no more likely to be able to put a stop to it if you tried than you are to be able to run out and buy yourself a nuclear reactor. Rest assured, the issue is safely out of your hands. But it may help you to be informed about it. As with most kinds of technology, once it is created and proved to be useful and effective, it is going to be used. Those who use it will win and get to play again, those who don’t will lose and drop out of the game, and the world will move on.

Before I expound on these solutions, I would like to address a few other, related issues. One is the environmental impact of the nuclear industry compared to that of the fossil fuel industry and renewables. Another is the state of nuclear industry around the world and its general viability, which is in many places questionable regardless of what solutions may exist. And a final, very major issue is the problem of radiophobia: it seems that radiation scares people much more than it ought to. Yes, radiation can be dangerous, but so can a baseball bat to the head. The only difference is that baseball bats are visible and radiation often isn’t, and people tend to be much more scared of invisible dangers than of visible ones. I will take up these issues next.


Conrade Vetter said...

Is a thorium reactor a viable alternative?

Dmitry Orlov said...

No. There are exactly zero thorium reactors in commercial use.

My donkey said...

Dmitry wrote: "And what if I told you that this problem is well on the way to being solved?"
Does that mean there will be no need for nuclear fusion (which you haven't mentioned yet) then? Nuclear fusion has been "just a few years away" for a several decades now.
Here's yesterday's example:

ivar laegreid said...

as always, very succinct and informative - thank you!

Dmitry Orlov said...

Nuclear fusion isn't even worth mentioning. There are exactly zero working power plants that use nuclear fusion. Technology that doesn't exist isn't interesting.

My donkey said...

I've been hoping that peak oil (or a limit on energy availability in general) might eventually prevent humanity from destroying the biosphere, but if it turns out that we DO have enough energy to run industrial society for thousands of years, what will stop us from continuing to poison and pollute the environment?
Will it be because we've drowned in our own sewage, or will it be due to shortage of resources such as water, soil, food? Or what?

Robert Firth said...

I was once a true believer in nuclear power. Until I did the research, and discovered an unpleasant fact: that the waste products of nuclear power are far more radioactive that the uranium they started with.

That is the killer truth. And for over 40 years, the advocates have said this is a soluble problem: and for 40 years, they have been unable to solve it.

My current view is that there is only one solution to our energy predicament: use less energy. And let the chips fall where they will.

kem.erd said...

I am always puzzled by the reaction of European states on such issues as nuclear power. They don't care about public opinion on problems like retirement age but when it comes to energy security the collective brain of state apparatus seems to stop.

The German nuclear industry is toast, so is most of UK's only because they still want to have the tech to keep producing nuclear subs. It appears only French now have full nuclear cycle in Europe. Most importantly, nuclear engineering research seems to be stopped in the entire continent. I know South Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and of course Russians are the only ones who actually spend effort on research. I know that one Japanese research fast breeder reactor has had promising results, and so is a Russian group. This tech already produces more fuel than it spends. And have been scratching my head for years why it is so difficult our European rulers to even consider this

Dmitry Orlov said...

Robert -

The solution for nuclear waste handling is to reprocess it, parking the high-level stuff (actinides, mostly) inside a fast neutron reactor where it gradually breaks down over time.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dmitry,
Regarding fusion you said:
"Technology that doesn't exist isn't interesting."
Everything you said about fission doesn't exist yet, so wait a minute! You can't have it both ways. Well actually you can, but you shouldn't!

Every decade from around 1890 to 1990, they said better batteries (than lead-acid) were only 10 yrs away. Thomas Edison once said, "There are liars, damn liars, and battery makers!" Every decade they were wrong, until NiMH and then various lithium batteries were developed. Now batteries hold about 5x the energy (specific energy) of lead batteries. So being wrong for a really long time, doesn't make you wrong in the end.

I used to think that fusion was pie-in-the sky, but so were better batteries. So I changed my mind on the topic. Would be a lot less problems than fission, and nearly infinite fuel.

It would also make all the Cassandras wrong and the cornucopian technological optimists right, which would be amusing, just as fossil fuels are about to destroy the climate for humans.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Gary -

If this technology didn't exist (in production, working well and ready to be scaled up) I wouldn't bother to write about it. Your opinion that fusion technology "would be a lot less problems" isn't based on anyone's experience.

kem.erd said...


Unspent nuclear fuel is not radioactive at all; you can touch it. About the waste: that is an exaggerated problem. Even if we decide to do nothing but store the waste, extracting actual waste from the fuel assembly reduces the amount of actual radioactive stuff by about two orders of magnitude. You end up with nuclear waste in much smaller quantity and in much smaller space which can be stored indefinitely far away from civilization, and eventually could be sent to the outer space.

Anonymous said...

Oh, sorry, thought it was hypothetical. I look forward to hearing about it.

You are right that predictions of fusion safety aren't based on experience, but significant fact of safer waste products: Helium and neutrons instead of actinides and plutonium.

It is still unobtanium at this point, and may be forever, but I keep an open mind after seeing what happened to batteries.

Dmitry Orlov said...

kem.erd - That's correct. Uranium and plutonium are safe to handle provided the pieces are small and dust-free. Large chunks of Pu are hot to the touch because of self-heating (caused by alpha decay). A plutonium disk is permanently hot enough to cook on. Alpha particles don't penetrate skin or paper. Inhaling or ingesting U or Pu dust particles does raise the likelihood of developing cancer. That's why uranium miners wear dust masks.

Paul Thompson said...

Hi Dmitry,
Fusion has been fifteen years away since the ninteen-fifties and all fusion research has essentially followed the same methodology - building ever-larger (and more expensive) magnetic 'bottles'. It's possible that a sustained fusion reaction may be obtained in some gargantuan device, with a gargantuan price-tag. The stumbling-block will be economic rather than technical; Even if the cost of a power reactor is 10% of the cost of a research reactor, the investment (read loans and subsidies) required to build it, may be so large that no one could afford the electricity it produced. Technical feasibility does not equal economic viability.

Isabella said...

There is another way to look at this, of course.
It is that the assumption Dmitry is making is that there is no other alternative to the Industrial Revolution, or highly industrialized society we have now.

In fact, few things in this world have only one answer.

It's just that we've grown so used to our industrialized world and our assumption that we're so damn clever to have it [irrespective of the massive destruction it's wrecking on the environment] that if we dont have it, we have to exist on rodents cooked on a campfire.

Well, there was no Industrial revolution before there was one - and people were living just fine. The changes needed, like orthopaedic surgery, were minor tweaking's.
Go look at the massive constructions of pre-Dynastic Egypt [dont make the mistake of reading the illogical rantings of standard, Academic Egyptologists]. Look at Gobekli Tepi, or Baalbek, and realise we have no idea how these people did what they did.

As a simple illustrative example, can I tell a small personal story? While living in Vladivostok, the required annual vaccinations made my small cat very sick. [Turns out she only has half a normal sized liver]. The excellent veterinarian [clearly a modern scientist, right?] filled her with many drugs constructed by a modern scientific pharmaceutical industry. After a week, cat was well and happy.
Darned if she didn't get the same issue back here in Ecuador. But in little Ecuador, there is only some of modern first world industrial science. All they had was a very old technique of using a plant extract in a chloro mixture. I took it for her without hope.
One week later, she was well, happy and active again!!

A confirmed Industrialist would have said it couldn't be done - but it was. I saw it.
I'm just trying to point out, that there's almost always more than one way of tackling a problem and sometimes we dont so much need a new answer as to ask a new question.
Perhaps as well as turn a team of scientists loose on nuclear power, we could turn a team of just innovative, creative people loose on how to live well without industrial power or machines of any kind
Who knows where it will take us, and what we may discover???

Dmitry Orlov said...

Isabella -

You seem to be ignoring a certain feature of the technosphere, which is path dependence. An absolutely huge investment has been made in all sorts of equipment that relies on stable, affordable electricity. There simply isn't the surplus to invest in a different system. It's either this one or nothing. And if the answer is nothing, then life becomes impossible for a large percentage of the population. The choice you are proposing isn't really a choice. Nobody chooses failure (well, except for some notable Western politicians, of course!).

Estlin said...

Back in about 1997 I wrote a paper called "The Killer Watt". The industrial revolution story (and a few stories before that) has been about energy. The basic drift of the paper was that, yes, we have an energy problem. But it isn't that we have a too-weak supply of it, but that we have so much of it. Energy for thousands of years? Oh damn! I thought maybe the coming energy shortage might save a few remnant species from the effects of humanity.

LarasDad said...

Dimitry, re your response to Isabella, are you not blinded by the paradigm ?

Theophrastus said...

Robert F. and Isabella are right.

While it is true that electricity is essential for modern industry, it is also true that modern industry is required to increase, in both size and technological complication, as long as continual growth is the paradigm.

This will not continue much longer, irrespective of peak oil, or peak anything. An irrefutable thought experiment has successfully shown that, at current rates of ever-increasing energy use, the present way of life will, in two thousand years, require the equivalent of a galaxy's worth of suns to power itself. Two millenia is not an unimaginable timespan at all, and limiting scenarios will of course occur much sooner than that.

Refer to "Galactic-Scale Energy" for details. (dothemath.ucsd.edu/2011/07/galactic-scale-energy/)

Furthermore, as long as exponential growth is a requirement of a given economy, then that economy will collapse at some point. Zero growth (as advocated by Herman Daly and Michael Hudson, for instance) is the only rational path forward, and yet it is seldom mentioned, except perhaps to excoriate its advocates. It is worth noting that Adam Smith, the father of capitalism itself, foresaw that his newly-minted system would do better to settle to a steady-state than to grow indefinitely.

Also, those who claim that nuclear fuel is safe to handle are seldom, if ever, those who will be employed to handle it. On top of that, neoliberal economics will dictate that safety standards be gutted to save costs; industrial history is littered with such practices.

Furthermore, a nuclear reactor is simply a source of heat that boils water to drive steam turbines, and this has been compared to cutting butter with a chainsaw.

Too bad that the northern hemisphere will continue to create this type of pollution, and also exacerbate the ills of continued growth.

pyrrhus said...

Aren't the Chinese building some small Thorium reactors to test the technology? I have read this...

Unknown said...

Fusion has been fifteen years away since the ninteen-fifties and all fusion research has essentially followed the same methodology - building ever-larger (and more expensive) magnetic 'bottles'. https://celebgag.com/ It's possible that a sustained fusion reaction may be obtained in some gargantuan device, with a gargantuan price-tag.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Estlin -

Keeping the lights on in some of the more forward-looking urban clusters is not going to keep global development humming along. But it may be enough to keep civilization from winking out everywhere.

Max -

You are confusing physics with economics. There is no reason why a closed-loop energy infrastructure based on U->Pu->close to 0 waste fuel cycle is incompatible with steady-state economics.

LarasDad -

In responding to Isabella, I am showing a certain bias, which is a deep-seated mistrust of fiction. I base what I write on what is known to work. So, for instance, people who bring up thorium or fusion I find somewhat irritating, because in my opinion they are basically talking nonsense. Where are the reference installations for these technologies that can be copied in large numbers in a risk-free manner? They don't exist, do they? Therefore, end of story. Same with rekindling a networked society without the electric grid. Where has that been done (outside of major parts of North Korea)? Are they our model? And if not, then where is the reference installation blah blah blah? Basically, I just don't want to waste people's time with pipe dreams.

Lon said...

I am in basic agreement with Isabella and disbelieve the assumptions about networked society. Increasingly networked energy and centralized social patterns are the symptoms of over-interdependence, not the solutions to ending the myth of perpetual growth.. It is not overtly a problem of physics, but rather of social integration as we old hippies realized when enthralled with Buckminster Fuller and EF Schumacher. The West has acquired the problem of over-centralization much as in the Stalin/Moscow model. Conversely, Mao's Great Leap Forward by local cadre, failed because its decentralized nature was technologically ahead of its time. Bolshevist communism failed and Maoist communism was a wild success; now headed toward self-destructive centralized inefficiencies. My book-in-progress expands greatly on this theme of efficient design and further cultural heroes like certain anthropologists. Isabella, perhaps you have ethnological and archeological models in mind and good reasoning. Hope to consult you.
The at-hand "problem" of energy was solved many decades ago with the electrolysis of H2. Hydrogen is nothing new, but is misunderstood because of its disarming simplicity and petro-chemical propaganda about safety. Centralized hydrogen generation and interstate pipelines are not practical and its economies of scale are dis-intuitively reversed to favour local production and consumption for home heat and transportation. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20120012878.pdf

I addition, old measures of social status based on conspicuous consumption are not easily changed but in time of stress certainly are doable. Economic growth can be a function of increasing quality rather than measuring by volume of endless 'plastic crap from China', cf. hand made goods as envisioned by James Kunstler and many others. Let's get a grip on basic human needs rather than carry forward assumptions of old useless consumption patterns. If goods can be manufactured locally with locally produced energy and labour, why is 85% transportation needed? Packaging, for example, can be eliminated for local delivery. Simplicity can be consciously and mathematically engineered as envisioned by our elders, Black Elk, Norbert Wiener, Sir Albert and Bucky Fuller. Wiener's greatest fear was that man would come to serve technology.
The caveat to all of these lofty solutions is the timeline for appropriate reinvestment. Blind faith in Ibn Khaldun 'progress' and the fact that progress at best comes in human flesh eating fits and starts, requires a convincing narrative to smooth the social transitions. The 'peaceful use of the atom' is not needed.

E. Harris said...

The theoretical energy density of completely fissioning any of the major fissile or fertile isotopes (U,Th,Pu) is around 80TJ/kg, (8e13J/kg), or about 2.5 megawatt-years per kilogram, which is about 1.9 million times the energy density of oil. About 90% of theoretical is said to be achievable in fast breeder reactors. (from whatisnuclear.com/energy-density.html ) Newer breeder reactor designs are said to be less insanely dangerous than the old ones.

Another potentially practical and safe option is accelerator-driven fission, which can burn all sorts of actinide waste.

Thorium shouldn't be written off, but it has difficulties: online chemical processing is complex (~25 major operations), the amount of beryllium required for a reactor is a significant fraction of world yearly production, and several other things that whatisnuclear.com covers well.

A less-well explored alternative, at least at the small scale, is fission-fusion explosions using lasers for the implosion (similar to the NIF fusion experiments), or particle beams, or light gas guns or EM guns or even just a few kilos of explosives which should reduce critical masses to anywhere from 250mg to 50mg and give an energy return of ~100-1000, depending on method and whether calculating thermal or electric output. (It turns out that critical masses are very geometry sensitive, with published spherical CMs being an upper limit, thin spherical shells have much lower CMs. Neutron reflectors such as hydrogen can make a huge reduction in CM as well, but most of all the higher densities in a hyper-velocity collision or implosion drastically reduce the CM.) See e.g. "Mini Fission-Fusion-Fission Explosions (Mini-Nukes). A Third Way Towards the Controlled Release of Nuclear Energy by Fission and Fusion" F. Winterberg, Z. Naturforsch. 59a, 325 – 336 (2004)

Matthew C Smallwood said...

Have to agree with Orlov on this one.. What existing legitimacy and clout regional authorities have could best be spent on things like railway infrastructure and close to perfect efficiency use of small nuclear reactors as stated; the alternative to this is mass die off and/or kill off, at some point,surpassing Black Death levels, a blow from which civilization of any kind (eg., local libraries, community hospitals, etc.) may not recover for centuries or even millennia. Or, another alternative, would be a society run by the rich and/or the technocrats, with no loyalty to anything either transcendent or particular, at their behest, along with such odious practices as forced birth control: modern China. The best option in the West is to use what science we have left to pick low hanging fruit, buy some time, and then turn to work on the painful transition back to steady-state low tech. It's highly likely this is already inevitable.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Matthew -

Small nuclear reactors aren't the sweet spot, which is around 1.2GW per reactor and around 4 times that per site. And most unfortunately for the West all of this tech will now have to be an import.

E. Harris -

It is important to keep the science away from the science fiction, which is what I intend to do. That which at this point isn't working yet we can safely assume will never work. On the other hand, assuming that some pie-in-the-sky technology will materialize in due course seems rather foolish. Let's stick with what is working now.

Estlin said...

Very nice to read all the comments by people who have taken a step back to get a better view... which is what Dmitri is an expert at.

When I was doing a PhD to try and figure out how to make things sustainable (real things, like houses), I realised the problem isn't about solving the problems. A friend who had heard me relating my research wrote a book, to salve his own conscience about not taking action on his knowledge and abilities. The book was about "solving" the problem of ever-growing humanity which thereby leads itself to destruction. The plot for his novel was that a smart bio-tech scientist (like himself) engineered a deadly virus, and a simple and effective way of distributing it globally in a short time. In the novel, it worked - the human population was slashed, and climate catastrophe (catastrophe for many species, not just humans) was avoided. But as he agreed in a later conversation, any such solution of reducing human population to avoid humans over-exploiting global resources doesn't actually solve the basic problem at all. All that would happen (as we see from our sufficiently stepped-back perspective) is that humanity would eventually begin to grow again, and we'd get back to the same predicament we are in now. It'd just be a delay - or at best a miserable cycle played out over many millennia.

The basic problem seems to be that there is no evolutionary mechanism in view that could turn humans from being primarily competitive (combined with being cooperative, it's true - the combination of which is what has made us such a "successful" species, along with a couple of other features such as a sizeable brain and an opposable thumb), into being primarily cooperative, and thus able to keep competitiveness below a troublesome threshold. Essentially, what drives people more than anything else, in their day to day lives - aggregating into the current spectacle of huge-humanity we now see - is that we are Sneetches, to use Dr Seuss's model. (Look it up if you don't already know this charming book.) Being Sneetches leads us to stand a little above our compatriots, if we can. And if we can do that by consuming some more resources, then that is what we'll do. This mechanism has always been there - even back when our economy looked more steady-state. We weren't ever a steady state species - we were just waiting for James Watt's steam engine to unlock a new energy source, and a new source of brighter stars to paste on our bellies. Like many other species, we're competitive first and foremost. So we follow the same trajectory - grow slowly, discover a rich resource, grow fast, collapse. Entirely normal and natural and repeated throughout history by countless other species.

So, looking for the solution is rather a waste of effort. (The chief cause of problems is solutions.) Better to spend our effort learning to enjoy life - which in our lifetimes is going to include enjoying the spectacle of watching one of earth's few Grand Collapses. Take a page out of Dmitri's book (any of them) - there is no other writer writing about collapse and doing it with such humour and enjoyment of life. Thanks Dmitri!

Robert Firth said...


The Union of Concerned Scientists disagrees with you.
Since they give what they claim is hard data, it might
be a good idea to write a rebuttal.



Dmitry Orlov said...

Here's the rebuttal: "advanced, yet-to-be-developed "fast burner" reactors" do exist. Look up БН-800 (which is now up at full power at Krasnoyarsk). It turns U-238 into Pu-239 and burns up actinides. These "concerned scientists" are clearly "unconcerned scientists" since they appear unconcerned with what's going on in the world at large and are still yammering on about Yucca Mountain. Everybody knows that the US, UK, France and Japan have all failed as nuclear nations, so it's time to look elsewhere.

Jean-Paul Printemps said...

When looking at the spotty track record of the nuclear industry, it's clear that what is good for the goose (your Russian counter-example) is not necessarily good for the gander (the West). Path dependence does not rule out retracing one's steps. Reversion to coal, with all it's devastation, has maintained what passes for civilization, and your study on communities that work points to a further reversion that is of more interest than staying the course on nukes.

dirty_birdy said...

One problem with nuclear is that the waste never goes away, even if you can burn up the actinides. Fuel has to be reprocessed, which generates liquid waste, which is hard to store. I just wanted to put that out there.

Unknown said...

when a U-235 atom is hit with a neutron, it fissions into Barium-141 and Krypton-92, which are very short-lived and decay into other elements, liberating much energy along the way. It also emits 3 neutrons, which can then hit other U-235 atoms, sustaining the chain reaction.
Non, lorsqu'un atome de U235 capture un neutron il fissionne en 2 produits de fission (pas forcément du Barium et du Krypton) et réémet entre 2 et 3 neutrons plus de l'énergie.

Arthur Noll said...

Burning up waste sounds good, but this change doesn't look likely to happen. Making this change would require building an enormous amount of new things. Thousands of these new reactors, and new infrastructure to run on electricity instead of fossil fuel. Tractors, trucks, trains, ships, barges, etc. The last two present serious problems, the tractors and trucks are a little easier but still a problem. High voltage trains are proven technology but expensive to build. Then there is the issue of replacing kilns and furnaces currently run on fossil fuels with electric heat instead. Some technical problems with that as well. But even with such design problems figured out, the really big problem is that a lot of this new stuff has to be built with with existing system that needs fossil fuel, and fossil fuels are getting scarcer and there is increasing competition to have these fuels just to keep the existing system working, never mind building a massive new system. And the competition is heating up and threatening to blow the whole thing up.

You talk about things happening whether we like them or not, well, that can be true in other ways as well. The current arrangement wasn't built by people concerned with having a steady state economy, neither leaders or followers. They have been ruthless about building things regardless of concerns about long term sustainability, and almost certainly will be ruthless about trying to keep them going. And they are increasingly in conflict with each other on that desire. That conflict looks likely to end the whole thing whether others like it or not.

Unknown said...

Hi Dmitry
Nice analysis and interesting comments
Everybody is discussing how to better manage, make better patch, even scientific patch over the hole.
Perhaps we should stop making hoes.
Stop the GROWTH.
Old man

Anonymous said...

Here's the Union of Concerned Scientists on breeder reactors. A sample:

It’s also important to keep in mind that the estimated cost of $3.36 billion is just a fraction of the project’s total cost. It does not include a facility to fabricate the plutonium fuel, which could add billions to the final price tag. The current cost estimate for the DOE’s Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site, which is being built to convert 2 metric tons of plutonium annually into fuel for operating light-water reactors, is more than $17 billion. Then there’s the cost of managing and disposing of the several tons of plutonium-containing spent fuel that would accumulate each year at the fast reactor site.


Anonymous said...

...and here's an article that mentions the advantages and disadvantages of the technology, such as

It requires liquefied sodium or potassium metal as a coolant, as water would slow down the neutrons. These metals can cause a mishap, as they react violently when exposed to water or air.

◆ These reactors are complex to operate. Moreover, even minor malfunctions can cause prolonged shutdowns. Their repair is tedious and expensive too.

◆ Breeder reactors have had several accidents. For example, in the US, the Experimental Breeder Reactor I suffered a meltdown in 1955. Similarly, Reactor Fermi I suffered a partial meltdown in 1966, and was closed down after a series of sodium explosions.


Anonymous said...

I have my own reasons for questioning your enthusiasm here, as well.

You seem to be making the same error made by many alternative energy enthusiasts: forgetting that energy is only one of the tings we use fossil fuels for. There's also lubrication and fabrication (plastics). You can't lubricate or fabricate out of nuclear power.

In an increasingly resource-constrained world, these reactors will be increasingly difficult to build and maintain. In an increasingly unstable world, it will likely become increasingly difficult to maintain a corps of individuals well-educated enough to keep them running, and increasingly difficult to keep them from being overrun by hostile groups that don't know how to operate them. An increasingly volatile planet, with more extreme weather than we have ever experienced and increasing frequency of seismic events due to rising seas and melting ice caps poses a threat to such plants. A serious accident would pollute a wide area which would be even more of a tragedy than, for example, Chernobyl because the resources necessary to contain the damage and clean up after it would be harder to come by, or possibly non-existent.

You are proposing that we grab the nuclear bear by the tail. That will result in a wild ride that ends in being dinner for the bear. I think we need to face the fact that we have gotten ourselves out on a technological limb that it is now breaking under our weight. The fall will be hard, and the landing painful. I hope we survive.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Arthur -

You are probably right. The best that can be done in many parts of the world that still have remnants of a nuclear power industry today (the US especially) is to ship out their high-level nuclear waste to another country that can reprocess it (Russia). The UK and France still manage to maintain some reprocessing capability, but they already have too many problems, one of which is a shortage of competent engineers.

And you are probably right that the people behind these failing schemes will become increasingly ruthless in their futile attempts to keep things going.

brothermartin -

You seem reasonably well-informed for someone who can't read Russian. The problem is, in the West, when you read about nuclear technology, you are faced with a media blackout of a certain company, called Rosatom, which is responsible for half of all uranium enrichment on the planet, mines a large share of raw uranium (through its fully owned subsidiary Uranium One) and is currently building between 68% and 73% of all new nuclear generating capacity around the world. If it weren't for Rosatom, the nuclear power stations along the East Coast of the US, which generate 40% of the electricity there, wouldn't be refueled and it would be literally lights out for the US economy. Rosatom also operates the world's only successful, commercially viable fast neutron reactor BN-800 at Beloyarsk; all the others, in the US, France and Japan, are at this point failed experiments. The US made a last-ditch effort to build one at Savannah River, and failed. It's a sad state of affairs: losers who can't admit that champions exist because admitting that they are losers would trigger a psychotic break.

grumpypowys said...


I am no expert but it is a shame that you are so dismissive about molten salt thorium reactors. I have been following Kirk Sorenson and others on YouTube and if what they say is only half correct, it seems to tick every box.

Admittedly, China has over 700 scientists working on this so it is probably not as easy as Kirk makes it sound. However, I did read that they are going to build a molten salt thorium reactor in Indonesia.

I read an article in World Nuclear News recently which gave a breakdown of Russian Nuclear activity and it would appear that they have complete dominance of the market with many new safe small scale modular designs on the way. I particularly liked the idea of a large nuclear power station at Kaliningrad. Far better to have a few power lines to Germany than gas pipes. Germany is in a real mess over power and relies totally on France to keep the system running.

Perhaps, you might relook at molten salt thorium reactors or at least say why you feel they have no future?

Dmitry Orlov said...

Yes, I am dismissive of technology that DOES NOT EXIST. Once there is an installed base of molten thorium reactors and the financial and safety implications of this technology have been thoroughly understood, I will look at it if the numbers look good. Until then they will remain works of fiction, and I am not interested in fiction.

grumpypowys said...

You are right of course but I do hope that molten salt thorium reactors are not just a myth.

What is your take on ultra high voltage transmission systems?


As it might be far nicer to have these running around the world as opposed to gas pipelines.

I did read somewhere that any distance over about a hundred miles under the present system becomes uneconomic so I wonder how these offshore wind farms make sense especially where there are AC/DC inverters involved.

Perhaps, you could explain a conundrum. People are encouraged to fit solar panels and get paid for pumping electricity back into the grid. Nearly all of these houses are single phase so how can this excess energy be pumped back into the local three phase transformer or does it just end up as heat into the atmosphere?