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Nuclear Power: Separating Fact from Fiction

October 5, 2011

Nuclear power is often considered a danger due to radiation, in particular ionizing radiation.  What is the real danger and how large is the risk?

The imagined risks are a poisoned wasteland that glows in the dark.  These are the images from science fiction horror movies.  Let’s look at what is real and set aside the fantasies.  The fantastic thing about risks is that we are extremely good at measuring them.  We are so good at measuring risks that we can measure risks that are unimportant, and we often confuse accuracy with relevance.  We can measure radiation levels MILLIONS of times smaller than rates that produce rapid illness.  That is a good thing, but it requires perspective.  It leaves us easily manipulated by media headlines, and it has real costs.

Can we control our radiation dose?

Here are some real examples.  I doubled my radiation dose in the last few hours.  Is that important?  Not necessarily.  The background exposure rate changes all the time.  I doubled my dose rate by working outside during the daytime after a rain shower.  I’m told that outdoor exercise is healthy so I deliberately doubled my radiation exposure and thought nothing of it.  At the same time, we hold nuclear plants to the lowest practical radiation dose.  If we apply the same reasoning to my hobbies we would have to outlaw gardening.  We get more natural radiation at altitude, so we would also ground every airplane and file lawsuits against every airline for causing cancer when we could have stayed on the ground and taken the bus.  Yes, the trial lawyers would love that.  We’d also sue every train and bus company that drove you through the mountains because the radiation dose is higher than if you traveled at low altitude by ship at sea level.  Let’s also sue the state government for promoting a radiation risk when they let us incorporate a town up in the mountains.  We can sue the state for making their capital building from granite since granite contains naturally radioactive elements and there are obviously lower risk alternatives to stone.  The increased radiation dose is small but absolutely real in each of these examples.  You could argue that these dose increases are sufficiently small to be meaningless, but that would make you wiser than the law.  The law makes no such distinction about radiation coming from nuclear plants.

Now this has to be important.  My neighbor has 200 times the annual exposure that I have.  200 times; now that has to be dangerous.  Again, you have to know where you started to know where you ended up.  It is easy for your neighbor to have an annual dose that is 200 times larger than yours.  Your neighbor flies for business.  She goes skiing in the mountains for fun.  She had routine dental x-rays and a mammogram.  Even at hundreds of  times your dose, the health consequences are trivial.  Go back to your gardening.

How expensive is safety?

This bit of perspective about radiation dose levels is important because chasing perfection is expensive.  Seriously, some nuclear plants are designed to be less radioactive to the public than working in a fruit stand.  These stringent criteria have strange effects.  It takes a BILLION dollars , yes, billion with one  “B” and a lot of zeros, to get a new type of nuclear reactor certified.  Even if this new power plant makes electricity for free and has NO nuclear waste, the billion dollar regulatory uncertainty will dominate the investment decision.  No investor wants to make a billion dollar bet that can be held hostage by a government regulator who demands we move even closer to perfection.  Investors have been there before and lost that bet.

How does the industry react to regulation?

The oil exploration companies faced a similar uncertainty just this year in the gulf of Mexico.  So now the large exploratory oil rigs are working in other counties.  Imagine if it took a billion dollars to certify a new car, not a billion to design and produce the car, but a billion dollars to get the permission slip so the car can be built.  That would leave us driving 57 Chevies rather than a Prius.  If it took a billion dollars to certify an airplane, we’d still be riding trains from coast to coast.  If it took a billion dollars to license a new computer we’d be stuck with the abacus.  That is what happened to the nuclear power industry.  The nuclear industry is inventive.  The nuclear industry is nimble.  The nuclear industry is responsive.  The nuclear industry is dominated by a regulatory and political process that destroys investment, innovation and responding quickly to the customer.

What is the monetary cost?

We regulated nuclear energy and we are now left with dinosaur nuclear plant designs.  So what does that cost us?  We pay more each month for our utility bills.  We pay for expensive power from antique power plants and expensive “renewable” alternatives.  That leaves our industry at a competitive disadvantage when they pay high energy costs.  We have fewer job opportunities once we’ve driven business out of business.  It means we spend more on power at home and have less money to save.  It means we have to work longer and harder.  It means fewer of us will ever retire.  It means other things as well.

Are there environmental costs to over regulation?

Regulation of nuclear plants was originally justified to insure human safety and to protect the environment.  The regulators don’t consider that alternative energy sources pollute more than nuclear.  Nuclear power has a carbon footprint that is between solar power and hydro power unless you pad the statistics by penalizing nuclear power for fuel recycling that might never happen.  The real advantage is that nuclear does not require the fossil fuel backup plants needed by wind and solar generators.  Watt for watt, nuclear is also much smaller than wind and solar plants.  We don’t have to cover the deserts or the hill tops with power plants if we use nuclear power.

What are the costs for an industrial society?

There is a synergistic effect to technological innovation.  Reliable cheap electrical power lets you do things you cannot do with variable and expensive alternatives.  You won’t build electronic chips when the lights can go off any minute.  (That is why there are no new chip foundries in California.)  You can’t even build “green” solar cells without reliable power and a stable regulatory environment.  Backup power costs money, and the cost is seldom charged to the unreliable renewable power plants.

How can we put this in perspective?

We want to understand relative costs.  Yes, a nuclear plant WILL release some radiation.  It might be a small dose and less than we receive from other sources each year, but it will be some.  ALL the alternative sources of energy have radiation risks as well, yet we ignore these risks because they are “small”.  We MIGHT have a nuclear accident.  We WILL kill hundreds of workers with any other power source.  We MIGHT have nuclear waste.  We WILL have the same radioactive inventory in the environment if we left the radioactive ore in the ground.  Consuming the radioactive ore in a power plant REDUCES the inventory and simply accelerates natural radioactive decay.  There are nuclear plants that produce hundreds of times less radioactivity than our current plants, but we can’t get regulatory approval to use them.  That is true though it sounds fantastic.

How did we get to this situation?

The next time you hear about an old power plant being shut down, please consider why the new designs are so expensive and offer the same problems as the old plants.  While you’re at it, the next time you or someone you know can’t find a job, consider the choices that killed the jobs they could have had.  Do separate fact from fiction when you hear the reasons. ~_~_~_

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2011 5:45 am

    It appears that the most “progressive” segments of our society are actually Luddites in green clothing holding society hostage to 12th and 18th century ideas. Imagine if the $1 Billion promised to Solyndra (yes, this administration was ready to give this proven failure another $500 million before they collapsed) actually went to a technology that WORKS.


    • October 6, 2011 5:06 pm

      Thank you, Doug. We’ve been taxed to support failed businesses in the energy and transportation sector. Imagine if we had that money so small firms with new ideas could grow.

      Did you hear that the new name for “Greens” is Watermelons?


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