Nuclear Power: Savings lives

Nuclear power has saved over 1.8 million lives by replacing fossil fuel power sources.

A nuclear power plant!

I've mentioned that fossil fuel power plants kill people and shorten lives by emitting not only particulate matter and smog normally associated with pollution, but also NOx (natural gas power plants produce almost no particulate matter, but any time anything is combusted, the combustion process in a nitrogen rich atmosphere (78% on Earth) produces NOx, so natural gas power plants do produce NOx).

Coal fired power plants, even clean ones, belch yuckies into the air.

Shortly after harping on exactly this for several posts, a journal article came out that exonerated my aggressive stance on how nuclear power saves lives rather than ending them through nuclear disasters. Nuclear power has saved over 1.8 million lives, according to this peer-reviewed research. The authors didn't include long-term health ailments and non-death causing heart attacks related to climate change. Only death: full stop. They go on to say that replacing nuclear power with natural gas would cause 400,000 deaths by 2050. Replacing them with coal would cause 7 million. Meanwhile, the best estimates of long-term deaths caused by radiation exposure from the Chernobyl meltdown, mining uranium, and building nuclear power plants stands at about 5,000 No deaths arose from Three Mile Island or Fukushima. What about the radiation that Fukushima is spilling out into the ocean? It's less than 1/20th the radiation levels found in a banana.

I am a banana. Eating one of me makes you ingest more radiation than Fukushima ever will.

I am a banana. Eating one of me makes you ingest more radiation than Fukushima ever will.

Critics are quick to point out that renewables like wind are cheaper and more effective at reducing CO2 emissions than nuclear. Great. Let's build more wind power. Except that there are not sufficiently good places to make wind effectively and cheaply. In an exhaustive (and depressing) article on the state of nuclear energy construction, it is pointed out that Germany has an installed capacity (recall, installed capacity is simply the name-plate power generation of a plant/turbine at best-case scenario) of 76GW of renewable energy. They then compared this to all of France's installed capacity of Nuclear at 63.1 GW. But, as we have talked about, renewables don't always work. While France's nuclear generators put out 407 TWh in 2012, Germany's renewables generated 136 TWh despite their larger capacity.

"Except like Jason's former manager at JPMorgan, I only work under ideal conditions!"

"Except like Jason's former manager at JPMorgan, I only work under ideal conditions!"

Moreover, Germany pledged to phase out nuclear power after Fukushima. What did they replace it with? Not renewables. Coal fired power plants. Meanwhile, as the US expands power generation from natural gas and ceased buying coal from the US, US coal producers are finding a new market for coal in Germany.

So let's look at Fukushima a bit more. Several things are bad about fukushima. First, it melted down when a tsunami overtopped its protective walls. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had told Japan 20 years ago that their Fukushima walls were too low and they could be overtopped by a very realistic earthquake scenario. And now after the disaster, groundwater contamination with (less than 1/20th of a banana's levels) radiation is all a concern. Guess what? The NRC warned Fukushima to get their groundwater issue under control three years before the Fukushima meltdown.

That's right. The US NRC predicted that Fukushima was going to happen, and told Japan to get their house in order.

NRC: Telling Japan what to do since 1980. "We don't have much of a job to do in the US anymore since we haven't built a power plant in decades"

The US has a nuclear meltdown, too. You know what the consequences were? Pretty much nothing. It cost a billion dollar to clean up. That is a huge sum. But the meltdown was well-handled. And a lot was learned from the meltdown.

My point is, the US has it's matters sorted out when it comes to nuclear safety. And we are good at identifying risks in other parts of the world.

Finally, here's the big one, new reactor designs wouldn't allow for either three mile island or Fukushima to happen. With these new reactors, in the event of mechanical failure of the passive systems, the worst case scenario of the new designs is that it would take 3 full days before even needing to worry about meltdown beginning, leaving plenty of time to deal with the situation.

So yes. There are risks with nuclear. But there are guaranteed deaths with coal and natural gas.

The best solution by far is avoiding building new power plants and to massively increase efficiency and conservation. But people are slow at changing, and we aren't gonna change our lifestyles fast enough in the western world to avoid expansion of power use, and the developing world needs to build a ton of power capacity.

So let's stop being scared of nuclear power, cause it's saving lives rather than costing them.

Thanks for reading,

- Jason Munster


Oh, but what is this section? Just a bunch of extra information. Check out how long it takes for various countries to build nuclear reactors:

What are Pakistan and India doing that they can build nukes in 5 years?!?

Average, min, and max times of nuclear plant construction for countries that have built them. Source

Hokay, so. I need to acknowledge the bad parts of nuclear power. The real ones, not the fear-mongering that happens.

First, nuclear power is more expensive than on-shore wind (which is a limited resource, there are not infinite good places to put wind farms), coal, and natural gas. There is no doubt about that. If we switched everything to nuclear, many parts of the US that don't have high electricity prices will experience a rate shock. That is, their electricity bills will rise. But hey, remember what we said earlier about efficiency and conservation being the best way to save lives and to arrest climate change? Slightly higher electricity prices would promote this conservation. The initial rate shock would be a bit of an issue, but I am betting that nuclear power's opponents overstate it.

Second, there is an alternative to nuclear that I want to acknowledge, with a caveat. Renewables can't provide baseload power. But renewables paired with load-following natural-gas fired plants can (recall from a prior article that gas turbine based power plants can spin up very fast, and no other major power plant type can) (we don't count hydro as a major power type because we can't build more hydro in the US, we are tapped [punny]). This is by far better than coal, and better than gas alone. But it still burns gas, which produces CO2 and kills people and causes asthma.


So. Science can fix anything, right? Only if we have lots of time and money. And grad students that function as indentured servants in a pyramid scheme to get tenure.

Back to the point. The truth is that science can't fix everything on short time scales. Climate is one of them. Geoengineering can help to a degree, but it will only get us part of the way there to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Let's discuss some.

White roofs, white roads, white buildings.

Two articles back, we discussed albedo, or reflecting sunlight. Ice reflects 90%, water reflects 90%. Whatever is reflected tends to go to space and not stay in the Earth system and warm it up. In fact, whatever is absorbed then gets in the greenhouse trapping loop, warming up the Earth a good bit. Dark surfaces (our roofs, our roads, most of our buildings) reflect little and absorb a lot. So, paint them all white, and more light is reflected. Excellent!

"But Jason," you say, "Cities are only a small percentage of land area. How could this possibly help? I mean, the rest of the Earth will still absorb just as much heat. Right?"

And to you I say, "Excellent, sir! That is true. Making all our stuff white won't do much for the overall heat budget of the Earth. I am so proud of you for reading most of my website so you quickly figure stuff like that out."

So what does it do?


The heat island effect is based on the fact that cities are covered in dark buildings and pavement, and have a very low albedo, so they absorb heat

Cities are fucking warm. They suffer from this thing called the "heat island effect." That is a fancy way of saying that they are so dark, they absorb the sunlight and are easily 10 degrees F (around 5 degrees C) warmer than they should be. Turn everything white, and you can cool the city. This will actually have a very large effect on how hard our AC units have to work in the summer. Imagine if your city was suddenly 10 degrees F cooler. How sweet would that be? I posit that it would be pretty rad.

This one seems to help a bit, but we will still be using tons of energy and producing CO2 in all other ways. Moreover, it won't solve the problem of the agriculture, ice caps, and acidifying ocean.

Putting CO2 in the ground

There are two ideas of sequestering CO2 in the ground. The first is capturing it at the source. Like power plants. This sounds like an easy idea, but the first problem is the energy it takes to capture it. Thermal power plants take in atmospheric air. Which is 78% nitrogen, and 21% O2. Even if all the O2 were converted to CO2, what comes out of the power plant stack is still 78% nitrogen. Separating the two to store the CO2 takes more energy. In fact, the power plant is roughly 30% less efficient. So it needs to burn a lot more coal or natural gas to produce the same amount of power, and will cost a lot more to build. And any fancy idea you have to get around this 30% efficiency hit won't work. No matter what, you either have to pre-concentrate O2 to get a pure stream of CO2 on the other side, or separate the CO2 on the emission side.

The next problem is where to store it once you get it. Gases like to leak out of things. Some companies are trying to store the CO2 underground, much like petroleum is stored underground in a lot of places. This is why you need to separate it from the nitrogen in the air. There just isn't enough space to store both the CO2 and the nitrogen, and also it is expensive to pump stuff underground. Another issue is that it is unclear how long storing CO2 will last in the ground, since it more or less needs to be done indefininately.

Finally, since 35% of our energy use is from cars driving down the road, and it is impossible to capture that CO2. So Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) from the source still won't do everything we need.

Direct Capture
The next idea is to capture CO2 directly from the air. We have increased CO2 in the atmosphere from 280 parts per million (.028%) 400ppm. The idea of direct capture is to do the opposite. Draw down the CO2 and then store it somewhere. Some might suggest we store it in trees, but that is an awful lot of trees, and unless we bury them trees somewhere underground, they are just gonna get consumed by bacteria and become CO2 again. Other options are to mechanically and chemically separate CO2 from the air, and them store it underground as above. This is very expensive. It might work in the future, but for now it won't.

The bonus of this, if it ever works, is that it is the best way to reverse our issues from an engineering standpoint. We can turn back the clock.

Stratospheric Injection

Injecting small sulfur or other particles into the atmosphere cools the entire globe by reflecting some small portion of sunlight before it hits the rest of the Earth. We know this cause when mountains like Pinatubo and St. Helens explode, they launch particles into the stratosphere and we get a cold year.

SO2 increase in the stratosphere by exploding volcano

Some people have suggested that we could do this. Just inject stuff into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight. The problem? It turns out that everything small enough to cause the proper scattering just happens to be the right size to promote adsorption of water particles. Which then allows for rapid recycling of CFCs in the stratosphere.

"But Jason," you say, "I thought recycling was good!"

Recycling plastics is good. Stratospheric recycling of CFCs is bad. Cause what happens is a CFC reacts with ozone, breaking it apart, wrecking the ozone layer, and then usually is all like, "Man, I am exhausted from catalyzing that reaction, I am gonna take a break." But that water that adsorbed onto our reflective particle provides an excellent place for it to re-radicalize. Which means it is ready to take out another Ozone particle. That's right, our CFC goes to chill out on some water droplets, effectively taking a restful timeout at a pool, and gets ready for work again destroying the ozone layer.

Let's pull this all back together. We try to put stuff in the upper stratosphere, if could make CFCs more effective at destroying the ozone layer, and then we are all screwed in a much much larger way than climate change. Cause the ozone layer is what protects us from getting fried by a lot of UV rays.

Here's where things get fun. Imagine you are a small country of 1 million people living on an island. And that island is going to get inundated with water in 20 years unless climate change is reversed. You don't give a damn about a chance of destroying the ozone layer. You only care about saving your people and your country. Stratospheric injection isn't exactly nuclear science. We aren't going to have rogue nations stumbling through how to do this, and failing all the time.

I'll leave you to ponder what all that means, cause it is more fun that way, and we are already at 1200 words.

The upshot of this is that it also fails to solve the acidifying of the ocean, we don't know how well it will work, and we don't know what will go wrong.

Solar Reflector

Another idea is to put huge mirrors in space and reflect a chunk of the sunlight coming in. This could work. Wasn't this a plot in some Bond movie, though? Also, it would be mad expensive. Probably much more expensive than some other options. And much like the option directly above, we still acidify the ocean.


Hokay, so. Most of the technologies for fixing our problem don't exist, don't work, are too expensive, or could kill us all. And if they do work in the future, they won't solve all the problems we are creating. Even the one that does solve all the problems, direct capture from the atmosphere, won't do crap for our plight if we rely on that alone. As a species, we can easily outstrip any CO2 removal measures just by burning more things. Even if after rigorous testing proved all these work, we would need to some combination together to get anywhere. And even with that, we need to reduce the continued growth of emissions worldwide, otherwise no science or engineering solution will stop climate change.

Depressing, eh?

Thanks for reading,

- Jason Munster

Power Grid

I was struggling to write a post about PV solar panels (the struggling part came in while trying to describe the quantum mechanics that take place), and realized that I need to describe how our power grid works in far greater detail than I had before. What follows is the gory details about how power is transmitted to your home. This is important because while solar power costs 5x as much as coal on the wholesale market, it only costs about 2x as much as coal at your house. Sometimes less. This is because coal-powered electricity is wheeled and dealed through several players as it reaches you, and is marked up every time. Solar power dumps straight into your home. Some of you are gonna love this article, others have already closed it.


On a logistical note, I haven't posted in the last two weeks cause I am too busy with life things to write both the blog and play computer games. Computer games sometimes win out. Thanks, X-Com: Enemy Unknown.

Generators, LSEs, Home Energy

Generators are all the different types of power plants we have discussed. They produce power, and in a deregulated market, sell the power to the grid. They are given a price based on demand. We have discussed how each power plant will "bid in" a day ahead and say how much power they can produce at which prices. As more power is demanded, the price will rise to bring more expensive power online. No matter what the power plant bids in, if they are online, they will get the per-MWh payment of the most expensive plant to come online. In other words, the marginal cost of energy production is what each power plant gets paid per MWh. If an expensive power plant is brought on-line for $1000/MWh, for instance, every single plant that is operating will receive that.

Okay, we have also seen the cost to produce power in several posts. It makes sense to repeat it here.

Dispatchable Technologies
Conventional Coal 85 65.7 4.1 29.2 1.2 100.1
Advanced Coal 85 84.4 6.8 30.7 1.2 123.0
Advanced Coal with CCS 85 88.4 8.8 37.2 1.2 135.5
Natural Gas-fired
Conventional Combined Cycle 87 15.8 1.7 48.4 1.2 67.1
Advanced Combined Cycle 87 17.4 2.0 45.0 1.2 65.6
Advanced CC with CCS 87 34.0 4.1 54.1 1.2 93.4
Conventional Combustion Turbine 30 44.2 2.7 80.0 3.4 130.3
Advanced Combustion Turbine 30 30.4 2.6 68.2 3.4 104.6
Advanced Nuclear 90 83.4 11.6 12.3 1.1 108.4
Geothermal 92 76.2 12.0 0.0 1.4 89.6
Biomass 83 53.2 14.3 42.3 1.2 111.0
Non-Dispatchable Technologies
Wind 34 70.3 13.1 0.0 3.2 86.6
Wind-Offshore 37 193.4 22.4 0.0 5.7 221.5
Solar PV1 25 130.4 9.9 0.0 4.0 144.3
Solar Thermal 20 214.2 41.4 0.0 5.9 261.5
Hydro2 52 78.1 4.1 6.1 2.0 90.3

So the cost to produce is the total system levelized cost (and now you should realize that producing power for $1000/MWh is ridiculously high. Except it has happened recently and momentarily in New England).

People at home don't see the price that a generator gets. Do you notice that you pay about 20 cents per KWh in MA (I use MA cause apparently all my readers are here), it is $200 per MWh. What gives? All these power plants are producing power for way less than that. Except for solar thermal and offshore wind, which both suck and are expensive.

The reason for this is that home/commercial retailers do not buy from the generators and from the wholesale market. Things called Load Serving Entities (LSEs) buy from the wholesale market. Often they will just be your utility company. They then distribute it to end-users or to other complicated things that we don't care about. The end users are your households and commercial things like shopping malls and stores and offices.

Sidebar: One important thing to note is that industry usually buys directly from generators. So while we pay $200/MWh for electricity, a Ford power plant might pay $60/MWh. This has implications that we will discuss later.

So, the LSE buys electricity off the wholesale market. And then marks it up and sells it to consumers. That is why you pay $200/MWh.

RTOs, system management

This section is getting specific, some of you may want to skip to the end of the article, the implications part.

Who tells generators when to come online and manages the wholesale market? Regional Transmission Operators. In New England, our RTO is called ISO-NE, for Independent System Operator of New England. They take bids and determine which power plants produce. They have important things to consider, like making sure a regional power line isn't too congested.

Line Losses

Nearly all power lines lose a percentage of their power as heat. Transmitting long distances loses around 8% of power. This is because there is always some resistance to the flow of electricity. It is like friction for the flowing of electrons. Power lines also have a limit to how much power can flow through them. If you try to go past the limit, they heat up rapidly and lose a ton of power.

The latter is something that the RTOs manage, to make sure that there won't be problems. The former has massive implications for renewable energy. Most of our renewable energy is wind and solar. Like wind in the sparsely populated midwest. And solar in completely unpopulated deserts. Transmitting this power to cities incurs huge line losses. With current capabilities, transmitting power from Iowa wind farms to NYC would make power more expensive than just building the wind farm near NYC, despite that wind in NY sucks (heh, punny). I don't have a source for this, I just saw it at a talk at Harvard.

Implications for installing renewables at home, commercially, and in industry


We pay $200 per MWh of power as residents in Boston. Solar PV in the best cases is $144. This will be in deserts. In MA, we don't get as much sunlight. But for the sake of argument, lets say that the average cost of solar in MA comes out to be $200-$250. With subsidies, it will be less. So would you pay $200 per MWh from your utility, or $200 per MWh to produce your own energy and stick it to the man? Also your own power would be clean, with far less CO2. With subsidies available in places like MA and NJ, solar comes out to less than $200/MWh at home.

Next lets consider commercial places. They also buy from LSEs. This is why you see a ton of them building solar panels. It makes sense economically and gives them a good vibe that the public likes.

Finally, let's consider industry. They buy directly from the wholesale market. So they pay closer to $100/MWh. They won't give two shits about renewables. Because they won't save money by installing renewables on their sites.

And this, my friends, is the trend we see. On-site renewables are adopted by commercial real estate and by residents, and industry is highly unlikely to ever embrace it. Interesting, eh?

Thanks for reading!

-Jason Munster