Reasons for Nuclear Series #1: First Principles

I’ve covered more than a few items on this blog about basic education and understanding of nuclear power. Today though I’m going to switch gears and talk about one reason I think nuclear energy is the way we need to go forward into the future. Something aspirational rather than merely educational if you will.

So what’s this first reason that I think nuclear energy is better than all the other options that we currently have? Well for a start, it’s because I believe that releasing radioactive material into the environment is wasteful, bad for the world, bad for health, and we need to stop doing it.

Not what you were expecting from this blog was it?

I could quote dozens of articles about how nuclear energy is the safest form of energy, and load you down with facts, figures and charts. But that’s super boring, so I’m going to stake out my position here from as close to first principles as possible while still making clear and logical sense.

So what do I mean about how I like nuclear because releasing radiation into the environment is wrong? It’s not what most people think when they think of nuclear but it’s true. For starters, basically, every coal deposit on earth has small amounts of radioactive materials in it like uranium, thorium, actinium and other radioactive decay products of these elements. And when this coal is burned, these elements are concentrated into the ashes that come out of the plant after the coal has all been burned, and some of the ash is carried off in the smoke plume where the radioactive elements drift down slowly over farmlands, watersheds and cities.

Or in the case of Tennessee in December 2008, turn into a mudslide that blankets huge swaths of land with toxic, radioactive mud when the giant piles of ash that are kept around the powerplants break through the retaining walls.

Yeah, remember that? All those pictures of parts of Tennessee covered in mud. Bet you never heard that it was all radioactive as well?

Okay, I’m being a bit hyperbolic. It’s not very radioactive at all actually. Only a few times higher levels than regular dirt. But that’s still enough, just from what is normally released from a coal plant, to be approximately 100x more than the amount of radiation that is released from a nuclear power plant.

Which brings me to my second reason. Nuclear decay is energy. In a coal plant, it is a tiny fraction of the energy being released so they don’t have any reason to capture it and attempt to use it. So it gets kicked out into the world like a cheating partner and nary another thought given to it. But in a nuclear plant, that decay heat and fission heat is All of the heat they have to work with so there is a good incentive for them to capture and use every last drop possible. Therefore every stray particle of radiation that escapes is wasted energy that they could be using.

Using nuclear fuels to produce energy actually reduces the half-lives of the materials and pulls energy that would otherwise be turned into harmful radiation rather than useful energy. Thanks to the, sometimes aggravating, Second Law of Thermodynamics, we can say with confidence that nuclear power reduces the amount of radiation from nuclear materials. And if certain groups would stop screaming that all radiation is bad radiation, it might be possible to grab the rest of the energy in all those 240,000 tonnes (as of 2009) of spent fuel rods around the world and reduce them to mere hundreds of tonnes by reprocessing and reusing them.

Which leads me to my third and final reason. Nuclear plants are the only energy source that has a mandate to not only track but safely store or dispose of all of the waste produced by their operation. Unlike some other forms of power generation, a nuclear plant operator must have a plan not only to collect and safely store all of the fuel it uses over its entire life but also set aside enough money to fully decommission, decontaminate, and demolish its own site.

Dry cask storage containers for spent nuclear fuel bundles. With a handy cutaway showing their multiple layers of safety. They each weigh about 100 tonnes of steel and concrete all told, so for anyone worried about these things… Nothing is getting into these without a crane and a demolition crew. And then of course if someone does manage to get inside one… well, Play stupid games, Win stupid prizes.

So what this actually means is that, unlike nuclear power, Coal, oil, gas, wind, hydro, and solar all have basically no plan for dealing with decommissioning their sites and disposing of their waste beyond putting it all in a big pile and leaving it there. Now, I can’t just rag on these industries, and I feel I must, as an engineer and someone who believes in the fairness of truth, say that a Properly Designed & Maintained tailing pond with a Properly Done ecological assessment and remediation plan is, in fact, a good and viable place to store and watch over waste as it is subsumed back into the environment in a planned and harmless way.

So, to recap. Nuclear is the way forward because it: emits less radiation into the environment than coal, has an incentive to prevent radiation from entering the environment by utilizing as much of it as possible in as efficient a manner as possible, and is required by law to track, contain, store, monitor, maintain and safely dispose of all of the materials involved in its operation and decommission. Honestly, I wish more industries had that kind of safety and waste management requirement. Maybe we would stop seeing videos like this if that was the case:

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