Humanist Society Lecture: Nuclear Power Pro and Con

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Humanist Society Lecture: Nuclear Power Pro and Con
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By Robert Bernstein

Bruce Gleason delivered a talk recently on nuclear power to the Humanist Society.

Background information on Bruce Gleason from the event flyer:
"Bruce has been involved in the atheist, skeptic, and humanist communities for 17 years. Founder of the Backyard Skeptics Meetup with over 1300 members, he has placed over 14 billboards supporting the secular community.

He creates two annual conferences: LogiCal-LA, a scientific skeptics event, and the Freethought Alliance Conference, which is for atheists, agnostics, and church-state separatists.

Bruce is a professional videographer and supplies critical audio-visual equipment for events such as the American Humanist and American Atheists conferences. He worked at ABC Television in Hollywood for several years."

His talk was about the pros and cons of nuclear power. He has kindly shared his slides which are posted here.

He started his talk acknowledging that he is not an expert in this field and is speaking as a layman. He wanted to show that an educated layperson can approach a difficult issue like this by reading up on the subject and asking challenging questions as a skeptic.

"The best way to find the truth is to find the best argument against your current opinion."

He showed this graphic of global energy sources past, present and projected for the future from the US government's Energy Information Administration EIA:

What stands out for me is that renewables are rapidly rising while nuclear is flat. Among fossil fuels, coal is flattening out and perhaps declining while natural gas and liquid fuels are rising.

He discussed the three most famous nuclear accidents in history: Three Mile Island in the US (1979), Chernobyl north of Kiev, Ukraine (1986) and Fukushima in Japan (2011).

He claimed that no one actually died from Three Mile Island and that the partial meltdown was fully contained.

Chernobyl was a far larger disaster, affecting much of Europe. Fewer than 100 deaths are directly attributed to the accident. But there may be a total of thousands who died over time over the affected area.

In the case of Fukushima it is hard to separate the tsunami damage from the nuclear disaster from the effects of the massive evacuation. Only one death is confirmed due to the nuclear disaster, but longer term there could be more.

Skeptical Inquirer magazine had an article on the realities of Fukushima in its current July/August 2021 issue which you can read here.

These accidents have pretty much halted construction of new nuclear power plants, with a few exceptions.

Gleason's main point seemed to be that those plants were poorly designed and ran on uranium as a fuel. He claimed that using thorium as a nuclear fuel is inherently much safer and much more sustainable.He said that there is four times as much thorium in the world as uranium. And it is more widely distributed around the world. He said that far more of the thorium fuel is used up in generating power, making it far more efficient and producing far less waste.Uranium reactors naturally tend toward a positive feedback loop of getting ever hotter and melting down. It takes active control to prevent this runaway.

In contrast, thorium has a high negative temperature coefficient of reactivity. Which means that it naturally stops reacting unless it is actively kept reacting. Therefore, meltdowns are not possible.There are two drawbacks of thorium reactors. One is that they use hot liquid salt as a coolant. This is corrosive and requires careful handling.

The other is that thorium itself cannot be used directly to created fission energy. It requires an external source of neutrons to convert it to U-233 which is the actual source of the fission nuclear energy.

Thorium reactors have been known for many decades. A thorium reactor ran safely at Oak Ridge National Laboratory from 1965-1969.The obvious question: If this technology has been known for so long and is so safe, why aren't they in widespread use? Or at least in some use?

One answer is that the bad publicity from the uranium nuclear disasters has made it difficult to get support for any nuclear projects. It may not be fair, but it is a reality. It would take a government and/or investors with very deep pockets to fund this. That is not happening, except for a few possible exceptions.

China and India are looking into this. And Bill Gates is promoting his own variations of nuclear power. A key to making nuclear power practical is to make it modular and mass produced. This is a goal that so far has not happened. Here is an article from 2012 about India looking into it.Just as fusion nuclear power is a goal that has been worked on for decades, but never quite seems to happen.

Historically, the military preferred uranium in the early days because it would produce byproducts that could be used in nuclear weapons. That is now seen as a bad thing, not a benefit!

It may be that if thorium were chosen back in the 1950s or 1960s as the way to go, we might be getting much of our energy from that source. But my cursory search after his talk indicated that the thorium train left the station long ago with no one on board.

Right now, solar photovoltaic is so cheap that it undercuts most fossil fuels even with the massive subsidies for fossil fuels. Wind is also very cheap and quite abundant.

The biggest challenge for such sustainable sources of energy is to store it. However, the explosion of electric vehicles is making such battery storage ever cheaper. A combination of smart grids and storage may succeed before safe nuclear gets its boots on.

Gleason did raise some valuable points. He showed that nuclear power could be made safe if that were a priority. He showed that much of our fear of nuclear power is distorted relative to other risks. He showed this graph indicating how much safer nuclear is than fossil fuels. And perhaps even safer than the tiny risks of wind or solar.The Climate Crisis is very real and very urgent. It is good to look at any and all options to replace fossil fuels and to reduce energy consumption.

We need a carbon tax or cap and trade system to incentivize innovation. The July talk at the Science and Engineering Council was about Direct Air Capture of Carbon from the atmosphere. We have dumped so much carbon into the atmosphere already that even if we achieve net zero new emissions, we still may need to remove existing carbon from the atmosphere. Someone has to pay for that.Gleason correctly noted that the most efficient transportation ever invented is to ride a bicycle. A huge fraction of all trips by car could easily be replaced by bicycle.

I think it is always good to ask challenging questions. To be a good citizen means being able to think about big, important issues even if we are not experts. But we also must be sure to base our decisions on good data. And not all data is about science and engineering. Some of it is about economics and other social realities.

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a-1629138068 Aug 16, 2021 11:21 AM
Humanist Society Lecture: Nuclear Power Pro and Con

The Sun will provide power for billions of years and energy storage technology improves by leaps and bounds to deal with those "shortfalls". Nuclear may be a part of the future, but I am not sure why you are insulting people who are working to save us from the climate crisis.

Watcher237 Aug 13, 2021 04:36 PM
Humanist Society Lecture: Nuclear Power Pro and Con

Wow that's a LOT! Seems we've learned much over the past 30 years. Hope people begin to listen again... Nuclear certainly has a strong role to play in a low emission future.

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