So you want to advocate for nuclear power? You liked the look of thorium, did your research, and have concluded that conventional nuclear power has been unfairly maligned since the 70s? You saw Pandora’s Promise and can’t fathom why we don’t have the IFR? Or maybe you lie in bed at night wondering what sort of climate-disrupted, energy-starved world your young children will have to face in twenty years time?
Everyone’s reasons and journeys are different, but the necessity of nuclear energy will effect us all the same way. You already have allies in physics and history, and the call for rational energy planning grows steadily stronger.
Because of the magnitude of the fundamental force binding protons and neutrons together in atomic nuclei, in comparison to the electromagnetic force that pairs electrons in the chemical bonds between carbon atoms in coal, the potential energy in an equivalent mass of nuclear fuel is at least 12,500 times greater. I pick coal because it is what nuclear power plants can straightforwardly replace, effectively megawatt for megawatt.
Before doing anything else, you need to get comfortable with your units. I prefer terawatt hours per year (TWh/yr) because a) everyone’s heard of kilowatt hours, and b) it is an equivalent of the more familiar megawatts (MW – there’s a million MWs in a TW) that electricity generators supply, but it indicates that average yearly supply and capacity factor have been considered. You already understand capacity factor – it’s one of the many vital metrics where nuclear energy excels. So, when considering the average annual electricity a given plant, like Vogtle 3 & 4, will supply, we can reasonably assume a capacity factor of 0.9 or 90%, multiplied by the combined AP1000 units’ nameplate capacity of 2308 MW (= 2077.2 MW average) then by conversion factor of 8766. The product is 18.21 TWh/yr, and through similar arithmetic nuclear and alternatives can be somewhat levelised for comparison as sources of electricity.
That capacity factor is the kicker. While nuclear plants can be operated at lower capacities, the negligible fuel costs (a consequence of the sheer potential energy density of actinide nuclei) dictate that economy is maximised by minimising downtime for maintenance and refueling. Finland, a nation that embraces nuclear for its growing energy needs as well as effective carbon abatement, boasts a 95% capacity factor for its reactors over the last decade. There isn’t another scalable source of low-emissions power that can provide such reliability – not even hydroelectricity, which is strictly constrained by suitable location. This isn’t to say that load-following is unfeasible, indeed it is becoming a noted feature of newer reactor designs.
But isn’t it expensive to build nuclear reactors? Well, these days they cost many billions of dollars, but they are neither inherently expensive nor too expensive. Again, by responsibly levelising the various available technologies on their product – MWh of electricity – it is clear to see that average new builds for nuclear plants are perfectly competitive, and there are many studies to demonstrate this.
And while we’re considering the output, we must not forget the input, that is the materials which are invested in constructing something to make electricity for us. We can compare things like concrete and metals. When we do, it is clear that nuclear is a particularly dense source of ultra-low emissions power.
While it is not unknown for opponents to be swayed through online discussion, your arguments are largely for the benefit of current and future readers more than the sake of changing your immediate opponent’s mind. This is because Facebook pages and comment sections are public and searchable. It speaks to how oblivious some opponents are regarding their bias that it won’t occur to them to take the debate to private email. Invariably, their selective arguments will merely be opportunities for you to respond with appropriate examples, analysis, literature, infographics or conclusive factual rebuttals and the casual forum reader can judge for themselves. Remember, you have both physics and history as allies.
This is most pronounced on twitter. Despite the fast pace and length limitations of the discussions, even when you’ve been muted or blocked by obstinate opponents, the fact that you have clearly put your case is preserved.
The dominant narrative in Australia has been:
- Being Green, alternative or otherwise environmentally aware is to be anti-nuclear by definition;
- The wisdom of physicists, engineers and other nuclear-related experts – even international peak bodies – is naturally dismissed as corrupted and of similar reliability as testimony from fossil fuel or chemical corporations;
- Radiation is exceptionally dangerous, end of story. We cannot risk the imagined catastrophe of a nuclear accident in Australia (no matter how small the risk, or how large the contrasting benefits).
This sort of thinking was kind of forgivable in the 80s, after Chernobyl, when the consequences of such an accident (actually impossible with reactors of Western design) were still unknown; when the science and early signs of climate disruption weren’t yet on the public radar; and when the example of France had not yet proved that rapid exit from national fossil fuel use for electricity was entirely feasible.
But it doesn’t cut it any longer. Chernobyl didn’t cause the carnage predicted at the time. Fukushima even less so. And the psychological harm to an affected population by fearmongering in place of evidence-led education directly results in panic, despair and destroyed families.
There is no obligation whatsoever to let bad information stand.
And the Bomb? Conventional electricity-generating power reactors are not used to make bomb material. Fact.
I won’t lie – this is the tricky part. Nuclear radiation may fundamentally be a natural phenomenon, but it is still something that human senses simply can not perceive. If you look around, you can concentrate and be aware of everything around you… but can you feel the negligible fraction of a microsievert of natural, background beta and gamma radiation hitting you at this moment? Ionising radiation, including also X-rays and ultraviolet, is like that. You don’t feel its effects in your cells, but you may know later if you had too much exposure, such as peeling skin after too much sunshine.
Conventional understanding since the 50s has dictated that all this harm – the cell death or DNA damage – is cumulative and that there’s no safe dose. On this assumption, stringent and expensive regulations are levied upon nuclear power, medicine and other uses, and the natural response to mishaps or even the fear of accidents is to tighten them further.The formulae for estimating dose get misapplied to predicting deathrates from radiological release – perfect ammunition for those unscrupulously opposed to nuclear energy.
Again, possibly a forgivable assumption decades ago, but the Taiwan Apartments, the Goiânia accident, the Navy nuclear shipyard workers, the Sands of Guarapari and many other examples including vast medical experience are the exceptions that appear to be the reality of the situation. While the biochemistry is fascinating and the multitudes of isotopes and applications are exciting, scientific understanding is secondary to the overwhelming message here: radiation is probably safe at low doses and is definitely not the devil we’re told it is. Precautions are sensible, but don’t freak out! But certainly, as long as you’re interested it is a good idea to get comfortable with becquerels and sieverts, their common magnitudes, their various sources, and the difference between a negligible and a dangerous dose rate.
So given radiation isn’t an exceptional danger, why oppose properly regulated, oversighted, peaceful nuclear power and medicine?
Atomic Insights – maintained by Rod Adams, the “favourite uncle” of nuclear blogging. Here are his reflections on the 2014 IPCC working group III endorsement of nuclear energy.
Hiroshima Syndrome – maintained by Leslie Corrice, with a focus on busting myths about radiation and the Japanese situation.
Patrick L. Walden at TRIUMF – many factual references from a nuclear physics professor.
Without Hot Air – David MacKay’s unbiased assessment of UK energy choices.
Pandora’s Back Pages – Ed Leaver provides citations for all the information presented in Pandora’s Promise.
I have to include PopAtomic Studios and Suzy Hobbs Bakers’ artistic, human-focused inspiration.
This list is nowhere near exhaustive, but I present it as the material I often rely on when putting my case. I must also recommend purchasing copies of Radiation and Reason and Greenjacked! Please feel free to add further references in the comments.
Now go forth and change some minds! However, I mean human minds, just like yours. Facts, analysis, commentary and reasoning will take you far, but it is vital, crucial that you also understand the other side.