Nuclear Power Questions

Many Friends and others have questions about nuclear power. Many have been listening to anti-nuclear companies (such as many of the environmentalist organizations) for decades, and assume – as I once did – that they would not be so strongly against nuclear power without reason, and that the reason has to do with more than money flow. I will try to answer questions I receive, though some will take more time than others. As with these questions, I may do a little paraphrasing and rearranging. If you have insight you’d like to contribute, please comment and supplement my answers.

Nuclear power plants require a very high level of expertise to operate. In the U.S. the trend is for only a few companies to operate nuclear plants – many utilities are opting out of this responsibility. If the expertise is so specialized doesn’t this lead to an unhealthy dependence on an elite set of companies? In addition, with an unstable network based on a relatively few large plants there is the risk of a major failure of large parts of the system?

I would think that just the opposite is true, that limiting nuclear power in the US to companies with a good track record will improve its safety. One or more companies have sold their nuclear reactors because they failed to meet NRC policy, which rewards early reporting of problems and gives the (incredibly expensive) fine-toothed comb treatment to companies that fail to report problems.

Siting several reactors close to one another is thought to be safer because there will be more knowledgeable people in close physical proximity.

In the developing world this could be a much more severe problem – how do these countries generate a stable operational base? Would it be OK if countries like Mexico, Algeria or Georgia built and tried to operate these complex facilities?

I don’t know how we can prevent anyone from building nuclear power plants, if that is what they want to do. However, the nuclear industry has a strong investment in safe operation of nuclear power. Tens of thousands of Americans die yearly from coal pollution, and I hear no one cares – some may care, but I don’t hear it. Several workers in the oil refineries 10 miles from my home died in fires, but I haven’t heard from the public that we need to stop using oil, today. But a small leak of water with an insignificant radioactivity level, compared to our daily dose? Then I hear.

I would expect that nuclear power plants, should they be built in countries such as you name, would be run by groups from other countries, even if the country has a lot of home-grown talent. But none of these countries has a strong regulatory system. That said, I heard a physicist on NPR who went to China expecting to see a nuclear industry run somewhat on the same lines as their coal industry (which kills how many per year? many hundreds of thousands of deaths yearly at the very least from pollution, plus 6,000 miner deaths in accidents alone in 2004, and so many more due to coal miners’ diseases), though not nearly as bad. Instead he found conditions closer to the first world.

Advocating nuclear power does not mean advocating that anyone and his cousin start operating nuclear power plants. Indeed, there are many who advocate that technical countries use more nuclear power so that non-technical countries can use more than their share of fossil fuels.

Building nuclear power plants near populated areas seems to be another decision that ignores the risk of even a small radioactive accident. For example, if Rancho Seco was operational and had an incident that required the evacuation of Sacramento the economic costs would be very high. The agricultural products of the whole valley would be instantly suspect. Given the large population of Ca. where could plants be safely sited in California? These facilities generally require a lot of cooling water – where sites that are appropriate?

There have been accidents already in populated areas. For example the accident at Three Mile Island, an early nuclear power plant built and operated under an early regulatory system, generated panic (and from someone I know who was there, a sense that the government was lying every time they told the truth), but there was no major exposure to radiation.

California has nuclear power plants in San Luis Obispo and San Onofre, near San Clemente. I hear that there are people in San Luis Obispo who drive to discussions of the dangers of nuclear power, and this appalls me. I don’t know how dangerous a nuclear power plant accident in the US could be, but there is some danger. Since Three Mile Island, there was a required infusion of jillions of dollars to update nuclear power plants, and a similar infusion of regulatory energy into the then just formed Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Today, nuclear power plant operators are required to study as many hours per year as do airplane pilots, there is constant review. If the operators of the local oil refineries are now forced to take classes, I am unaware of it.

There has been a big change in the understanding of nuclear power plant designers as well. For example, they now assume that the operator is malicious, because there is no functional difference between a malicious operator and one who puts paper over the warning lights. New nuclear power plants are expected to be 10 – 100 times safer than the current generation of American plants.

All thermal power plants – nuclear, coal, natural gas, biomass (plant matter), and solar thermal (using mirrors to concentrate solar power on water turning it to steam) – must be located near water. Of these, nuclear power plants have the lowest operating temperature, and so must use the greatest amount of water to cool per unit energy produced. This is particularly harmful to local fish, which do not appreciate the increase in temperature from any power plant, but of course, the nuclear power plant does a little more damage. On the other hand, the use of fossil fuels is likely to lead to widespread extinction of fish species, notably cold-water fish.

Re suspect agricultural products, I have heard again and again from people who worry about the radioactivity dropped on Welsh cows, and such. We and these cows are exposed to radioactivity in our daily lives. There are huge variations in what is considered normal, with very high natural exposures in some areas without an increased cancer rate.

It is true that many people – and some describe this reaction as natural – might become afraid of eating food grown near a nuclear power accident, event though food grown near Three Mile Island, for example, would not have had an important exposure. It is our job to reach that which is human within us, to overcome fears that are innate or taught, so that we can be more effective at dealing with fears harder to see when the sky is blue, the weather pleasant if somewhat warm, and all around us looks lovely.

For most of us, it is easier to deal with fears of someone else causing an accident. However, reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to individual behavior, and the technologies that enable what we do every day — driving and flying and turning on the light — should be our focus.

5 Responses to “Nuclear Power Questions”

  1. David Munro says:

    How much uranium, actually, is there? Although nuculear power cheerleaders will say that there is a huge amount of uranium, this site:

    points out that most uranium deposits are so low-concentration that it takes more energy to refine the ore than can be produced by the reactor.

    Much of the current uranium supplys are coming from de-commissioned Soviet era weapons supplies. It’s thought that there is only about enough high grade uranium ore to replace the planet’s carbon-based energy supplys for about three years.

    Although talk continues about thorium reactors, as well as about hydrogen fusion, these are currently theories under study, and not established industrial processes.

    Even if nuculear reactors were proved safe, it’s not certain that there is enough fuel for their massive expansion.

  2. Del Ruthven says:

    Mexico does have nuclear plants. They are GE BWR plants and have been in operation for a lot of years. I am not sure of the name of the plants, but I believe they are near Vera Cruz.

    They have good homegrown operators, and I don’t see Mexico making any thermonuclear devices.

  3. JimHopf says:


    I’m pretty sure your source is non-credible, and most likely political-agenda driven. Even low grade ores yield far more energy than the required input, especially when you consider that a host of other valuable metals are usually extracted along with the uranium (in other words, this is energy we probably would have spent anyway).

    More importantly, we have barely started to explore for high-grade uranium ore, as we quickly found all that we needed (in decades past). Now with an increaseed uranium price, and new interest in expanded use of nuclear, people have started exploring again, and the newspapers tell stories of new high-grade uranium ore deposit discoveries literally every day.

    The “official” reserves estimates you keep hearing about only refer to the uranium we know about from the trivial amount of exploration that we already did, al long time ago, and it doesn’t account at all for new high-grade finds. Most experts agree that we will continue to find high-grade uranium ore, as necessary. Our known reserves are less than ~10%, and probably more like ~1% of the high-grade ore that’s actually out there.

    More evidence of the above is that nobody in the nuclear power business, such as utility executives, have expressed any concern at all over long-term uranium supply. These are the people who would be affected if there ever was actually a problem, and none of them are expressing concern. There are some concerns about the short-term, with respect to ramping up production capacity to meet increased demand for mined uranium (as new plants are built and as the weapons stockpile runs out). This includes getting new mines on line, etc…, a process that is known to take some time. But none of this is at all about whether there is enough uranium in the ground. One experts view on this is given at:

    As a side note, I have to question why anyone would use this issue as a reason to oppose nuclear power. Sound like a problem that would take care of itself, isn’t it. If this is true, anti-nukes have nothing to worry about. This is the sort of issue for the indistry itself (utility execs, etc..) to worry about. That’s their business, and it can be left to them to do what’s in their best (business) interest.

    The fact is that we have hundreds to thousands of years of fairly high-grade uranium supply left, even assuming a once-through cycle and even assuming a large scale expansion. This is plenty of time to develop breeder reactors, or perhaps even fusion, at which point the fuel supply becomes effectively infinite.

    I speak more about this at

  4. Udo Stenzel says:

    David, the “Peak Uranium” website uses an estimate borrowed from Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith (that magic 0.01% ore grade), and their paper, which contains many wrong assumptions and selects numbers to get the desired result, has been refuted more than once already.

    However, even using their wrong numbers, there is uranium for a few centuries (see the last chapter of the worthless diatribe at Also, given a reactor that extracts just 25 times more energy from the same uranium, rocks become worthwhile ore. A breeder easily achieves that.

  5. Rod Adams says:


    I have a technical correction to your comment about thermal power plants and their effect on the environment.

    Thermal plants (AKA heat engines) need a “heat sink” as a place to get rid of the excess energy that is left over after the conversion process whether the plant is a Rankine cycle steam plant, a Diesel or Otto internal combustion plant, or a Brayton Cycle gas turbine plant.

    For almost all Rankine cycle plants, the heat sink of choice requires a large flow of water, for the others the heat sink function is performed by exhausting hot gases into the atmosphere where they naturally cool.

    It is technically possible, however, to use atmospheric air as the heat sink for even a Rankine cycle plant – though it would require large and expensive heat exchangers. That is because the temperature at which the heat is rejected for a steam plant is quite low – about 120-130 degrees F.

    It is far more feasible to use an air heat exchanger for a closed Brayton cycle gas turbine – like an Adams Engine (TM) – (shameless plug here) since the temperature at which the heat is rejected from the turbine exhaust is more like 500-800 degrees F. That gives a much larger temperature difference and reduces the required heat transfer surface area in the heat exchanger to an affordable quantity.

    (There is a well known relationship between quantity of heat rejected, heat transfer surface area and fluid temperature difference straight out of heat transfer engineering. Q=UA(Delta T) where Q is the quantity of heat, U is a constant that accounts for geometry and materials, A is heat transfer surface area, and Delta T is the difference in average temperature between the fluid that needs cooling and the fluid that doing the cooling.)

    In other words, there is no requirement to locate thermal power plants next to a source of water.

    One more issue – the fishermen in my local area tell me that one of the best places on the Chesapeake Bay to catch fish is near the outfall from the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant. Apparently there are a number of fish that thrive in the warmer waters.