Nightly Nuance: Nuclear Power


Manage episode 296789820 series 121090
By Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers and Pantsuit Politics. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

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Sarah: [00:00:00] In advance of our infrastructure series in the later half of July, we thought this would be a perfect time to share the deep dive Beth did into nuclear power earlier this year for our subscribers. If you are new to the show, four nights a week, Beth creates a mini episode that we call the Nightly Nuance. This is an exclusive to listeners who are at the $15 a month level on Patreon or subscribe through Apple podcast subscriptions. Each episode is 10 to 15 minutes long and has a deep dive into a policy issue or current event. We round out the week with a free flowing, often spicy, conversation between the two of us where we reflect on whatever is on our minds that week.

The first week of March, Beth did a series of three episodes diving into the subject of nuclear power. What it is, how it's developed over time, the pros and cons of using nuclear. Then we talked about Paducah's experience with nuclear power on the last episode. Today, we put all four of those many episodes together for you. We hope this is both a fun glimpse into the bonus content we create and a good way to set the mood for our upcoming infrastructure series. Enjoy

Sarah: This is Sarah

Beth: And Beth.

Sarah: You're listening to Pantsuit Politics.

Beth: The home of grace-filled political conversations.

Hello, my friends. It is Beth here for the Nightly Nuance. I really appreciated hearing that you liked what we covered last week, and we're going to pick up where we left off because Courtney asked me to talk about nuclear power. We are really stretching the outer limits of my research and analytical abilities now. I'm here for it. This stuff is very dense. I went to law school for a reason so I'm going to really break this down into three parts. We're going to talk about nuclear power all week here. Today, we are just going to try to understand what's happening. What is nuclear power? How is it created? [00:02:00] And then tomorrow we're going to talk a little bit about the history of nuclear power and the disasters that it has caused and then on Wednesday, we're going to do a little pro and con on nuclear energy and some policy considerations.

So that's our syllabus and we're going to start today, back in science class, to try to remember what we're talking about with as much precision as we can. So we have to understand that the atom is the smallest unit of ordinary matter. I'm sure everybody remembers that, and the nucleus of the atom is that dense region and about the center of the atom that has protons that are positively charged and electrons, which are negatively charged. Don't get PTSD. If you hated this stuff in school, we're going to try to breeze through it pretty quickly.

So nuclear just means having something to do with the nucleus, that core of the atom and nuclear energy occurs through nuclear fission. Okay. The result of nuclear fission is to split that nucleus of an atom into [00:03:00] two or more even tinier and lighter nucleui. This can happen two ways. The first way is through a nuclear reaction and that's the process in which two, teeny tiny particles collide to produce a nuclei and that's a species of atom characterized by how many protons and electrons it has and its energy levels. The other way it can happen is through radioactive decay, an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by radiation so the transmission of energy in waves or particles through space, but the result is the same.

The point is we are splitting the nucleus of the atom and creating something new through that split and the resulting fragments are not the same element and they also can set off a chain reaction and in a nuclear reactor, that chain reaction, the process of unstable atoms, colliding and splitting and splitting and splitting again can happen [00:04:00] at a controlled rate that releases energy. It can also happen, the same process at a very fast and uncontrolled rate, and that is how we get nuclear weapons. The energy produced from this process is enormous, millions of times, the amount of energy contained in a similar massive gasoline, a hundred to 2000 times as much energy per acre, as you're going to get from solar and wind energy.

So that is nuclear power, the controlled use of nuclear fission to create lots and lots of energy. How does this work? We need some elements in order to have particles colliding and atoms splitting and right now the vast majority of nuclear power plants use plutonium and uranium. Uranium is a silvery gray metal that naturally occurs in low concentrations in soil, rock and water. It's about a hundred times more common than silver and [00:05:00] it is mined. It's mined, primarily in Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Niger, Namibia and Russia. Very different geographic regions of the world producing most of our uranium. Plutonium, also silvery gray, but when it meets air it oxidizes and it gets kind of a dull yellowish or olive green color. Plutonium is radioactive and what does that mean exactly? That it has that unstable nucleus that we're looking for in our vision process.

Plutonium is very dangerous to handle. It can accumulate in our bones and we learned that through some very serious breaches of medical ethics in experiments, on people who were poor and powerless and very, very sick and did not consent to have amounts of plutonium given to them. It shares some properties with uranium and you can kind of see that in the names uranium was named after the planet Uranus, [00:06:00] plutonium named after Pluto, which was a planet when they named it. So there were, there were similarities, but when plutonium was isolated, its kind of potential was realized. Trace amounts of plutonium are found in nature, but it's mostly created and it can continue to use to be created through nuclear reactions. It's a by-product of those reactions. Okay.

Most nuclear vision is being done in light water reactors. We'll talk more about why lightwater reactors tomorrow, but every commercial nuclear reactor in the United States is a light water reactor. So let's talk about how those work. The job of the light water reactor is to be the house for nuclear fusion to occur in, and that's where we're going to control everything. We're going to control the release of energy so that we get power and not deadly explosions. So into this house, we're going to bring our elements. We cannot just bring all uranium atoms to the process. We need the [00:07:00] unstable parts. So that's where you use a centrifuge and I wanted to introduce some of this without going into too much detail so that when you're taking in information, for example, about Iran's enrichment of uranium, you can understand why that matters.

So the centrifuge is going to say separate isotopes by their relative weights. This is very, very precise work and concentrate the unstable parts and when they concentrate the unstable parts, we have what we call enriched uranium and this enriched uranium is in a powder that then gets processed into small pellets that are stacked together in sealed metal tubes called fuel rods. One of these uranium pellets can create as much energy as one ton of coal, 149 gallons of oil or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Okay. So lots [00:08:00] and lots of energy in these pellets that gets stacked into fuel rods and the fuel rods get bundled together to make what's called a fuel assembly. 200 or more of these rods go into the fuel assembly. So, so much potential energy altogether in that assembly and then into the reactors core is going to go a couple hundred of those fuel assemblies, depending on how much power we're trying to produce.

So the reactor also has a vessel and inside that the fuel rods are immersed in water. The water has two jobs. It is a coolant because this process is creating so much heat and it's a moderator. It helps slow down the neutrons that are produced by the fission in order to keep that chain reaction going. The rate of the reaction can be controlled by adding control rods into the reactor core, to reduce the reaction rate or by taking control rods out [00:09:00] to increase the rate and so this whole process we're creating heat and the heat turns water into steam, which spins a turbine and that's how we get our mostly carbon free electricity. I read an article that said this part of the process, the turning of water into steam makes a nuclear reactor, not all that different from a tea kettle and I found that helpful. I need metaphors like that.

Okay. So all of our commercial nuclear reactors in the us are lightwater and there are two types of light water reactors. The majority are pressurized water reactors, these pump water into the reactor core, under high pressure to prevent the water from boiling. The water is heated by the fission, pumped inside tubes that are in a heat exchanger and the tubes heat a separate water source to create the steam that spins the turbine that produces the electricity. A smaller percentage [00:10:00] of our reactors in the United States are boiling water reactors. They produce the steam directly inside the reactor vessel, and that steam goes directly to the turbine through pipes to create electricity. Unused steam in these boiling water reactors, condenses back into the water and gets reused in the heating process.

So one concern that we have about nuclear power is nuclear waste and let's talk about what that means for just a second. We have what is considered low level waste. These are things that have been exposed to radioactive materials like gloves and tools and machine parts. They're either going to be stored onsite at nuclear power plants or collected and transported to disposal facilities in South Carolina and Washington and Texas. High level waste, which is just the used fuel from the reactor right now is stored in like reinforced steel [00:11:00] containers at plants. There is a plan to build a permanent storage facility for that high level waste in Nevada but that Project has been planned since 1987 and is still not finished. There is not a ton of high level waste. All the used fuel ever produced by commercial nuclear plants would cover a football field to a depth of less than 10 yards. Coal plants generate that same amount of waste every single hour. So it is important and it is dangerous and must be stored in a responsible way. It is a lot less waste than is being produced by fossil fuels.

So as we dip our toes into thinking about the pros and cons of different energy sources, when thing I want us to be considering is water. In the United States, about half of all of our water usage is tied to creating electricity. So much water. The nuclear energy Institute, [00:12:00] which is pro nuclear energy, so we want to take that account into account and understanding our sources here, they estimate that a nuclear power reactor consumes between 1,514 and 2,725 liters of water per megawatt hour and I'm not going to give you all the numbers, but I will just tell you that that is more water than Kohler gas requires. A large nuclear power plant may use a billion, with a B, gallons of water every day. Now that water is eventually returned to its sources. So power plants are typically constructed by rivers, lakes, oceans, and the water eventually goes back into those rivers and lakes and oceans.

The problem is it's really, really hot. It's so hot when it goes back into the sources and it can increase the temperature of a natural water source by up to 30 [00:13:00] degrees, which obviously poses a threat to everything that lives in the water source. How green is this? The government describes nuclear power as a zero emissions way of producing energy but that is just not true. There are emissions from the mining and the refining of uranium. There are some emissions from the water vapor and heat that are released. There are emissions from constructing the plants. We don't have a way of producing, producing electricity with truly zero emissions yet. So when you hear zero emissions, be very skeptical, but the average emissions for nuclear energy compare quite favorably with even solar and wind, they are much, much lower than fossil fuels.

A couple of innovations, just to be aware of, because people are working all the time on making nuclear power better. So one innovation is using liquid sodium instead of water to cool the reactors. This helps avoid meltdowns, which we'll talk [00:14:00] about tomorrow. It also allows nuclear plants to be smaller and to be simpler, to construct and then out on the horizon guys, and people are looking to expand nuclear power by going from fission to fusion. So remember, fission, we're splitting the nucleus of our atoms. Fusion merges two small atoms into a larger one to create something new. Fusion is just literally what fuels the stars and could produce practically infinite energy using hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the universe.

We're not there yet, but people are dreaming about it. Okay. I hope that this was helpful in just kind of giving us a picture of what is nuclear power. Tomorrow, we're going to talk about how everybody got really excited about nuclear power is like a peaceful spinoff from the terrible use of the atomic bomb and then how our optimism quickly was drained.

[00:15:00] Friends. It's Beth here for the nightly new ones. I hope that yesterday's episode was helpful, kind of framing up what we're actually talking about and a lot of these scientific concepts are going to be important to understanding the disasters that we'll discuss today but I want to just walk us through a little bit of a historic timeline and then in today, thinking about just the current state of nuclear power in the world, and then tomorrow we'll talk pros and cons and where I ultimately land. Ultimately is probably a strong word, but where I land on nuclear power and I'm very interested in your thoughts as well.

Today is going to be a quick and dirty walk through history and if you find yourself like frustrated, because you want to hear more about multiple elements of what I'm talking [00:16:00] about, please know that I see you. I really struggled in my research with scope creep because there were lots of paths that I want to follow, but I also want to respect everybody's time and try to keep this digestible and as tight as I can.

So radioactivity, like we talked about yesterday, the fact that we have these unstable, reactive atoms existing in some elements, uh, was discovered in the late 1800s and our understanding of radioactivity really started to develop in the 1900s, the early 1900s. Nuclear fission, so that idea that we can split our atoms was discovered in Germany in 1938 and the next year, the potential for that chain reaction where the split in atoms release neutrons that will continue to split and split and split, creating all this energy, was discovered by a French science. About this same time, Albert Einstein in the United States goes to president Roosevelt and says there [00:17:00] is a potential to create a massive nuclear weapon here.

Research around the creation of a nuclear weapon, an atomic bomb starts to accelerate in the 1940s and that period includes the creation of the Manhattan project, where we're collaborating with Canada and the United Kingdom, and what the Manhattan project was attempting to do was to create one atomic bomb from uranium and one from plutonium. The big challenge they faced at first was getting enough enriched uranium it's that you remember, we have that tiny percentage of mined uranium that is especially unstable and we go through that process with centrifuges to try to pull out those unstable isotopes and make our uranium pellets that we discussed. So, so that process was a huge challenge. We get the first successful nuclear test in the desert of New Mexico in 1945. Now 1945, we're in world war II. [00:18:00] Germany has already surrendered, but the empire of Japan had not and as you know, the United States used the successful nuclear technology and bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to Japan's surrender.

Of course, the United States has now demonstrated this capacity in the world and so we get the Soviet union stepping up its efforts to develop a nuclear weapons program. In 1952, we take this up a notch. So I talked yesterday about how in nuclear energy, we want to get moving on energy created from fusion instead of fission. Fusion, the bringing together of two atoms. We tested our first fusion bomb, the hydrogen bomb in 1952, and then the Soviet union followed shortly thereafter. In 1957, the world gets kind of optimistic about nuclear energy as a peaceful way to harness these advancements made in the realm of weapons. If we can control the energy [00:19:00] created from this activity, then look at what all we could do, right?

And so in 1959, the United Nations creates an association to look at international nuclear energy. In 1960, we start to see the application of nuclear science and medicine and the United States and the Soviet union keep ramping up their capacity and their technology around weapons and in the early 1960s, the arm race between the Soviet Union and the United States is getting really bad and both sides are testing increasingly powerful nuclear weapons, and then China gets nuclear power and that's when everybody kind of freaked out. So in the late 1960s, we at an international non-proliferation agreements. Countries who have nuclear weapons are supposed to disarm them as much as possible, and really like cut it out with future development. Countries who don't have nuclear weapons are not supposed to get them.

In the [00:20:00] seventies, things shift. 1973, we have a worldwide oil crisis and France and Japan start using nuclear power the next year and nuclear power plants start to be built around the world, which provides an opportunity for our countries that have nuclear weapons to sell some of their technologies to smaller countries and then of course, some of those smaller countries take the technology that's being doled out for power and start developing their own weapons programs. Most people including in the United States, started building light water reactors. The kind of reactors we discussed yesterday because they were fairly simple. They were available. They were inexpensive compared to other kinds of reactors and the water was available. We kind of had an, a water is plentiful attitude and our friends in Canada were using heavy water reactors. That was a path that I almost diverged down for a long detour, but we won't do that.

Suffice it to say. We started to see an uptick in countries using [00:21:00] nuclear power and then we have another pause moment because of Three Mile Island. In 1979, March 28th, Three Mile Island nuclear generating station in Pennsylvania has a partial meltdown. So let's talk about what happened and see if we can follow along given our rudimentary understanding of how nuclear power works from yesterday. Operators at the plant are trying to fix a blockage in filters that clean the water used in the reactors and these filters are there to pull out impurities in the water that would accumulate in steam generators. It's just about decreasing corrosion from those impurities in the water and these blockages were very common. The way that operators normally fix the blockages was to blow compressed air at the blockages, but that didn't work. So they decided to try to blow compressed air into the water itself and use the force of the water to clean the filter.

[00:22:00] When they did, a little bit of water was forced pass a stuck open valve and went into an airline and that little bit of water caused the pumps to turn off, which caused the turbine to trip. Because heat and pressure were increasing in the reactors coolant system, the reactor performed an emergency shutdown and control rods, remember we talked about that yesterday were inserted into the core to stop the nuclear chain reaction, but the reactor is generating heat and the heat isn't being removed because the turbine has stopped. There were some valves that should have helped with this problem, but those valves have been improperly closed for maintenance. They were not supposed to be closed while the reactor was operational, but they were and from there just a lot of things went wrong in terms of both equipment and human decision-making and what we got was a partial meltdown.

The top of the [00:23:00] reactor core was exposed. The heat caused a reaction between steam and the nuclear fuel rods, and this released zirconium dioxide and hydrogen and additional heat. That cladding around the nuclear fuel rods melted, and that damaged the fuel pellets, holding the uranium, and that released radioactive isotopes to the reactor coolant, which produced hydrogen gas, which caused a small explosion. Years of investigations at the federal and state level reveal, all sorts of problems here. Procedural issues, organizational issues, cultural issues, mechanical, right? There were lots of culprits in what happened here.

Officially Three Mile Island caused no death. There have been lawsuits and unofficial investigations claiming above average rates of cancer and birth defects in the surrounding area. A variety of epidemiology studies have concluded that the accident has no [00:24:00] long-term observable health effects. Of course, there are lots of environmental impacts and it, it was very dangerous. It was very scary. I think something interesting to pull out from Three Mile Island, as we continue thinking about what, where we want to be on nuclear power today is Charles Peros normal accident theory. So he looks at Three Mile Island and he says, this really was the complexity of the system. It is not that we can blame human error or mechanical error or even natural disasters. When something like this goes wrong, when systems are so complicated and so high risk, multiple failures are going to interact with each other, increasing the potential for harm and even if systems like this are well managed, they are prone to failure. It is inevitable that something will go wrong when you have such a complex system.

So he made the case for radically redesigning any system that is highly interactive, [00:25:00] highly complex, and high risk. So Three Mile Island worries people, and we start to see some stagnation in the nuclear power. Our industry. There were orders for reactors that were canceled. Very few new reactors were ordered. Oil company is that had decided to get into uranium mining bailed and there was some consolidation in the uranium mining industry and then we have Chernobyl a few years later, 1986 and again, without going into too much detail, because as anybody who watched the series on Chernobyl or has studied, it knows we could do, you know, 10 months of study just on Chernobyl.

What happened there began during a safety test. It was the fourth attempt at trying to solve a potential problem. There, their concern was that this potential problem they had identified could cause the reactor core to overheat and they were looking for ways to prevent that or to respond to it. During this safety test, there was an unexpected 10 hour delay, which meant a shift [00:26:00] change and then the operating shift coming on duty was not prepared to be part of this test. So one part of the test required them to decrease the reactor power. When they did that, it unexpectedly dropped to almost zero and the operators there were only able to partially restore it, which put the reactor in an unstable position but the operator's doing the test at this time did not understand that and so they just kept going and this triggered a reactor shut down as part of the test, but the unstable condition created by that power lack, along with some design flaws in the reactor itself caused that chain reaction that we're looking to control to create electricity, to be uncontrolled.

So we get a bunch of energy releasing suddenly, vaporizing the cooling water and resulting in a steam explosion [00:27:00] and that steam explosion gives rise to an open air fire that releases radioactive contamination into the air for about nine days. Two people died in the explosion. 134 were hospitalized with acute radiation syndrome. 28 later died from the radiation. There were 14 more people who died from what we believe are radiation induced cancers. There have been different models attempting to figure out how many people all toll died because of Chernobyl when you take into account Europe and the parts of Russia that were impacted, and the estimates range from 4,000 to 16,000. Of course there are long-lasting environmental impacts. It's a $68 billion disaster and I think again, you can see Charles Peros normal accident theory coming into play that you had here, a complex system with both human and mechanical issues and all of those failures compounded on one another.

So in [00:28:00] 1986, we don't see a ramp up in nuclear power, right? Because we still have Three Mile Island in mind. Now we have Chernobyl in mind and these were two very different accidents that occurred in two very different places, which some with some time in between them and so the fear around nuclear power is, is high. 1991, we are also seeing reduction in nuclear weapons arsenals, both the US and the Soviet union. Russia now are reducing their arsenals. There is some traction around a nuclear test ban treaty. It gets introduced, but it didn't go into force, but that's the kind of conversation that's happening internationally and that continues through the nineties. But then 1998, we get nuclear testing in India and Pakistan and we learn continuing into the 2000s about India and Pakistan nuclear powers, as well as North Korea and proliferation of nuclear power [00:29:00] in Iran and there is a concern that all of this is about weaponry, not really about energy production.

In the late 1990s, Japan commissions, third generation nuclear power reactors. So this kicks off renewed interest in nuclear energy and its potential but then we have another setback, a big one in 2011. At the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, there is a 9.1 magnitude earthquake and when that earthquake hits, the reactors at the Fukushima plant sense it and automatically shut down the normal fission reactions taking place. Because of that shutdown, plus electrical grid supply problems, which happen in a disaster, right, the electricity supplies failed and the emergency diesel generators start and these are important because even when the fission has stopped, we have [00:30:00] so much heat inside our reactors and those diesel generators are supposed to remove some of that residual heat but the earthquake is followed quickly by a tsunami and the tsunami flood parts of the reactors. The plant had a seawall. Remember we're building nuclear plants near bodies of water because we need so much water to run them and they knew that there was some risk there. So there was a seawall, but the tsunami was so big that it swept over that seawall and flooded parts of the reactors, which caused the emergency generators to fail and there were three meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions, and the release of radioactive contamination.

More than 154,000 people have to be evacuated and we get tons of radioactive material released into the Pacific ocean. There were no immediate radiation exposure deaths, but a number of people died during the evacuation of the [00:31:00] population. It is estimated that a few hundred people died of cancer related to the exposure. We saw a major uptick in thyroid cancer among children and the psychological damage of what happened at Fukushima was profound and again, investigations found that there were mechanical and human elements to the disaster in addition to the natural disaster components. Japan's government said, really, we can't blame a natural disaster. There were, we should have been prepared for this. There were enough indicators that something like this could happen and so we have to think of this as a man-made tragedy.

After Fukushima, Japan shut down its nuclear reactors, Germany started to phase out some nuclear power, and most everyone i`n the world starts to look at the safety of their nuclear plants. So that brings us to today. Let's just think about what our current state is. There are about 349 reactors in 31 countries producing energy. Most global reactors, two thirds of them are now over [00:32:00] 30 years old, more than 80% of them are lightwater reactors like we have in the United States. The United States is generating more nuclear power than any other country. We're just ahead of France, China, Russia, and South Korea, but the size of the countries matters here. Nuclear power accounts for about 20% of the energy we use in the United States. It accounts for almost 72% of the energy used in France and a lot of the most forward-looking research on nuclear power and especially on nuclear fusion is happening in France.

We have a pretty strong safety record in the United States around our commercial nuclear plants. There are no radiation related health effects linked to their operation throughout their histories that we all agree are are real. China is planning to hugely increase its nuclear power capacity by 2030 and it has more than [00:33:00] 100 large units proposed and backed by itself. India is also increasing its investment in nuclear energy at a very intense pace. It is unclear exactly what will happen in the United States during the Biden administration. The $2 trillion climate plan that Joe Biden has shared calls for federal research that would include small reactors and his platform was the first democratic party platform in a very long time to explicitly support expanding nuclear energy.

Our new secretary of energy, Jennifer Granholm does not have nuclear energy experience and I noticed in a Ted talk that she gave on renewable energy in 2012, that she did not mention nuclear energy. She talked about basically everything else, geothermal, wind, solar but, uh, biofuels, but not nuclear. Gina McCarthy, who is Biden's chief domestic climate coordinator has previously said that waste disposal issues related to nuclear power should be resolved before the [00:34:00] technology is scaled up and let's just review quickly on waste disposal. We just don't have a permanent solution to store the waste products from creating nuclear energy that are radioactive and the lifespan of those products is like tens of thousands of years. We need a really good long-term solution on where to put that stuff. Again, it's creating a lot less waste than fossil fuel energy production creates. It's it's a small, small amount compared to fossil fuel waste, but it is a dangerous amount and we really need a permanent solution for it.

Montana is having some controversial discussions of nuclear energy right now. 40 years ago, Montana voters passed a ballot initiative that empowers them to vote up or down on any nuclear generating facility before it is constructed in the state so if you want to put nuclear power in Montana, you got to get it through [00:35:00] Montana's voters but our representative Derek Skees has introduced a bill to overturn that initiative as a companion to a bill that would have a new committee studying the possibility of replacing some coal fired boilers with small modular nuclear reactors.

So that's kind of where we are today in a nutshell and again, all of this is very, very simplified in a very complex arena, but I hope that that gives you some indication of where we've been and where we are and why the thinking on nuclear has shifted at several points throughout history. So we'll come back tomorrow and do some pros and cons and opinion stuff.

Hello, my friends. It's Beth here for the Nightly Nuance. Today, I want to talk about the pros and the cons would you probably [00:36:00] are already forming in your mind as you've listened to the first two days of this and then I will end talking a little bit about my opinion. So let's start with the cons. I think they're the easiest. Nuclear plants are super expensive to build and maintain. Years long processes. It takes so much planning, uh, very expensive materials and equipment, lots of research and development. It is really hard to know when nuclear power is being cultivated, whether you have actual energy development or a covert weapons program, or some combination of the two and I personally don't want more nuclear weapons in the world and so I get concerned about constructing more technology that would facilitate more nuclear weapons in the world.

We do not have a good solution for the poisonous waste generated by nuclear power. It requires tens of thousands of [00:37:00] years to lose its danger. We are constantly creating new plutonium by making nuclear energy and we don't yet have the technology to use that plutonium as part of new fuels so it's just, it's kind of lying around and we just haven't found a way to keep that secure for the amount of time required. Finland is the only country in the world that's really serious about developing a permanent storage site.

Security in general is a massive challenge. Obviously lots of bad actors in the world would like to get their hands on the kind of technology and materials that exist at nuclear power plants so robust physical security is required. Robust cyber security is required. Safety is an enormous concern. There is an approach used at nuclear plants called defense in depth, where you have multiple independent layers of protection but again, that is increasing the expense of these facilities and has [00:38:00] to be part of the risk analysis. Accidents when they happen are catastrophic and generationally significant for the environment and we have seen accidents happen. Three different types of failures contributing to those accidents in three different countries in three different decades. So they seem inevitable based on that normal accident theory that we talked about yesterday, and they come at a very, very high price defined broadly.

There are serious issues around ensuring that nuclear power is actually as sustainable as we hope it is because while yes, it reduces carbon emissions, we know that we have this issue of dumping, very hot water back into lakes, streams, rivers, oceans, that can harm the life in that water and we know that the process of constructing the plants has a heavy carbon footprint. In order to fix those problems, we just need lots of research and development and [00:39:00] that is expensive and so if we want to use nuclear power in the United States, the government is going to have to support it in a very big way. Lots of subsidies, lots of money for research and development, lots of money to get plants opened at scale.

Okay. So those are the cons. Let's talk about the pros. Nuclear power has prevented some estimates say about 1.8 million deaths, even if you subtract people who lost their lives to the three major accidents we talked about yesterday, because it has reduced fossil fuels burned and it has reduced accidents in coal mines. When person talking about this, who I listened to in the course of my research said, look, you have to compare the risk of putting dangerous stuff in a very deep hole, which is a bad idea with having dangerous stuff, constantly released in the atmosphere, which is a worse idea. Coal and oil are killing people silently. We know about these major accidents that happen around nuclear plants, but we [00:40:00] don't talk enough about how many people die from lots of different things related to coal and oil and as a counterbalance to the weapons argument, fossil fuels create war too. We see it all the time.

Yes. We have a big pro. Drastic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power compared to fossil fuels. Nuclear power compared to wind and solar is very consistent. Nuclear power plants can run for a year or more without any interruptions or maintenance. They don't depend on, you know, what's happening with the weather. So after we make that enormous initial investment, nuclear power plants are less expensive to operate than coal or gas plants. The cost is about 33 to 50% of operating a coal plant and 20 to 25% of gas combined cycle plants. This to me is the most compelling argument. Energy needs are rising and China specifically is adding lots and lots of coal to meet those rising energy needs.

[00:41:00] Nuclear energy might be our shot at actually meeting the demands on the horizon for energy. In a Ted talk that I'll link here, Stewart Brand said, you know, I'm not trying to be pro nuclear. I'm just pro math and when you look at the math, there is so much more potential from nuclear energy than wind and solar. There is also potential for improved security. So yesterday in the conception, I said, you know, I'm worried about having more weapons because of nuclear research, but there are people who argue nuclear energy could create a safer world because as countries see its potential and really start to find that potential, they will convert their weapons technology to energy technology. I feel some skepticism about that, but I like it and I would love to see that actually come to pass. Also, just thinking about the United States. If we want to better navigate a world full of nuclear weapons, we need to continue increasing our expertise in how nuclear energy works.

[00:42:00] Nuclear energy, even with all of the downsides and the disasters is relatively clean compared to everything else that we do to create electricity and new technology can make it safer and could possibly solve the waste problem. So some of the new technologies being discussed are using fluoride salts, which are very chemically stable and those fluoride salts, instead of water, as a coolant can solve a bunch of problems. One of those problems is that these salts don't have to operate at such high pressure so the containment building around the reactors can be smaller and that reduces your risk of coolant leaks like we saw in some of the meltdowns and in an emergency liquid fluoride salts can be handled more safely than the water coolants so that's one advancement that looks good.

There is a radioactive element, Thorium, that might be better than uranium to use in creating nuclear energy. It is even more energy [00:43:00] dense than uranium. It is very common on earth. We actually have a stockpile of Thorium buried in Nevada here in the United States, and there's tons of Thorium that is easy to find and use on the moon. It is really easy to recycle back into the energy generation process. I'm going to link a Ted talk from a NASA scientist who was looking at Thorium to generate energy for a lunar colony and realize this might be a really good solution on earth as well. We have manufacturers developing new, safer ways to use and create reactors all the time. One of those is New Scale, which has a valve that flips open automatically during power failures, which would send water back into the reactor core to cool it, this is a direct response to some of what happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. It makes the system less prone to human error.

Okay. So that's my pro and con list. What problem are we trying to solve is where I [00:44:00] kind of came back to in my own analysis. I think this is so hard. I think climate change is so difficult in terms of analyzing. Like it's not hard to me to say climate change is a very real problem that we need to approach with urgency. The next layer, the, how, I think is so hard. And so thinking specifically about nuclear, I tried to consider what ethical framework to bring to this. In the Ted talk that I mentioned from Jennifer Granholm, now the secretary of energy, she just kind of offhandedly said, you know, when we think about renewable energy, we have to think about what does the greatest good for the greatest number and so that's utilitarianism as an ethical framework. What, what provides the greatest good for the greatest number, but I think as you start to sort through that, you have to say for whom, for what generation of people and how do you look at economic issues versus risk issues versus how much power could potentially be created.

So other ethical frameworks, beneficence, just what is [00:45:00] right and good and I'm not sure there's an answer to that around nuclear power. What would it mean to operate under the least harm framework? I don't know that either my brain kind of instantly goes well, that takes nuclear power off the table because the potential for harm is so great. It can be so catastrophic when it goes wrong and yes, catastrophe can happen around all kinds of things. You know, when we assess risk, a lot of people often say, well, you drive a car, right? Well, right but the generational environmental impacts from nuclear failures are enormous and I don't think we fully understand them yet, but I also know that the generational consequences from fossil fuels are enormous so I don't think least harm helps us.

I don't think respect for autonomy helps us because again, who's autonomy at what point in time and that's how I feel when I think about the justice of nuclear power, about deontology the idea that we adhere to our duties when [00:46:00] we try to solve problems. Um, if we think about rights, you know, what are our rights? I, I do think that living in the modern world, we should think of electricity as a right, to which people are entitled but oh, it's really hard in the next step of that analysis. I don't know what the virtues are around nuclear power. So if you are interested in ethical frameworks, I'm going to put a link here to a PowerPoint that I go back to often to just remind me of these frameworks in a very succinct way. What I'm telling you is I've not found them to be helpful around climate change and assessing what we should do next on nuclear power.

I want to read you a couple of things politically from the New Yorker. "Nuclear energy scrambles our usual tribal allegiances. In Congress, democratic senators, Cory Booker and Sheldon Whitehouse have co-sponsored a bill with Republican senators, John Barrasso and Mike creepo that would invest in advanced nuclear technology and provide support for existing plants that are at risk of [00:47:00] closure. A climate platform drafted by John Kerry and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez included a plan to create cost-effective pathways for developing innovative reactors, and yet some environmental organizations, including Green Peace and Climate Justice Alliance deplore nuclear energy as unsafe and expensive. Perhaps most telling is the ambivalence that some groups express. Although the Union of Concerned Scientists have warned about the climate impacts of shutting down nuclear facilities, it has historically sounded the alarm about nuclear risk.

Ed Lyman, it's director of nuclear power safety told me that because there are so many uncertainties associated with nuclear safety analysis, it's very hard to make a conclusion about whether it's safe or not. He noted dispiritingly that climate change could increase the hazards at nuclear plants, which will have to contend with more extreme weather events." from Mother Jones, "Few issues divide us as cleanly as nuclear power. According to a 2019 pew research center poll, [00:48:00] 49% of Americans support opening new plants while 49% are opposed."

Oh, so. Cause I think more about this. I am compelled by the math of nuclear energy. Well, let me disclose this first. I came into this research expecting to be solidly in the camp of nuclear power is too dangerous. The risk is not outweigh the potential benefit. There were research has shifted my perspective on that because I did not understand the potential benefit. The potential benefit is enormous. It is possible according to one scientist on basically the space of a football field with certain forms of nuclear energy, to power the world for a year and I love the idea of solar and wind, and I think we should pursue everything aggressively and I think we should have more than one way of creating electricity in the world at all times, but when I think [00:49:00] about the land that will be needed to do solar and wind well, the cooperation among different entities to do solar and wind well, the trade-offs associated with hydroelectric energy. I don't know enough about geothermal. I'm going to try to learn more about that.

It just seems to me that one, the genie is out of the bottle. Like we cannot go back and, and split the first atom that led to the creation of horrific weapons and the potential for so much harm created by nuclear power and so it exists in the world and it has a very positive application, potentially a generationally sustaining application and applications that could help us explore the universe more and discover amazing wonders and so I don't want to be left behind as the United States in understanding what that potential looks like and in developing our capacity to harness that potential for [00:50:00] good. I found this paragraph in a Swedish editorial of all places. "The question is who would not want to build a simpler electricity system based on reactors that can very well be in operation for 80 to a hundred years producing enormous amounts of electricity around the clock and regardless of the weather, at a price we can afford to ensure the wellbeing of the global population and from an industry that responsibly manages its waste, unlike all other electricity producers."

So while I think there are enormous problems with nuclear power, I think there are dangers in terms of both security and environmental impact and the safety of human beings right now and into the future, when I look at all of those problems alongside every other answer to creating enough electricity, to meet the world's demands and keep people living in humane ways for this foreseeable future, I think we have to [00:51:00] keep investing in nuclear and we probably need to scale up our investment in nuclear, and we probably need to embark on an enormous education campaign around nuclear and I also think we need to keep in mind, in addition to the scientist, we need organizational theorist looking at and pressing scientists on how simple can we make these systems because I absolutely think that normal accident theory makes a ton of sense and will continue to present problems.

So how can we take everything that we've learned and continue some advancements in this field? That's, that's where I'm landing at the end of several days of pretty intense research. I'm very interested to hear where you're landing on this and I know many of you are going to bring life experience and expertise to this discussion that I don't have and I always welcome you telling me what you think I've gotten wrong, what I've missed, what I'm not seeing, what's important to this overall picture.

Thank you all so much for being here and showing up for the hard work of [00:52:00] learning about this over the past few days and I will be watching the comments here closely and be back here with you tomorrow, Sarah.

Hello, my friends. Welcome to the Nightly Nuance. Sarah and I are here to talk about nuclear power some more. This has become my new favorite topic. I'm sorry. I'm stuck on nuclear power forever.

Sarah: [00:52:21] I've been so excited all week long, because it also just feels like it's like such a good progression. You've like done all the research and now I've got to tell you about the, like on the ground experience here in Paducah.

Beth: [00:52:31] Yes. So tell me everything. First, tell me how you feel about nuclear power.

Sarah: [00:52:35] Oh, I love it. I'm all in.

Beth: [00:52:37] Were you all in before the series, did the series change anything for you? Did you hear anything that was surprising or that you didn't know?

Sarah: [00:52:43] I thought the, uh, the big aha moment I had was when you were talking about Three Mile Island, because I had watched Chernobyl, which is the HBO series about the meltdown. So good and it shows you this idea of like so many things have to go wrong and [00:53:00] it was interesting to hear that sort of same thing play out in Three Mile Island. I loved your accident theory. I thought that was so, so interesting, but I had just list, even before I started listening to your series, I'd listened to two environmental experts on, um, Ezra Klein's show and they were talking about like one of them I thought it was really interesting.

She was like, I'm like, dyed in the wool environmentalism used to be like, if you grew up in the environmental movement, you were anti-nuclear and she was like, and I've just totally shifted into the belief that like, it is a viable option and we definitely should not be shutting down nuclear power plants to build fossil fuel power plants. That's for dang sure and our best options and this is where she really was like singing my song are in places where there's already nuclear, which Paducah Gaseous Diffusion plant and like, I would be so thrilled if there was a nuclear power plant in Paducah at the site, particularly if there was a way I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's talk about that. You wanna, you wanna hear about the history of the plant.

Beth: [00:53:59] Tell me, tell [00:54:00] me what happens at the Paducah power plant.

Sarah: [00:54:02] Okay. So the Paducah gaseous diffusion plant was built in the 1950s. It's really interesting to listen to my grandmother talk about the building of the power plant. Okay. So this is out in west Paducah, really, really close to where I went to high school, sort of in the bigger like county area. It's not like it's like downtown right as it makes sense, but it's, you know, Paducah's on, it goes on the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi river so as you talked about near a water source, so it's right on the river, up up a little bit. You can see it as you cross into Illinois and so when it was built, the influx of people to build the factory created like towns where there weren't towns. So she talks about all the workers coming into Heath high school, like in areas now that are so rural and so like, you know, we have West Virginia, we have what's called Kevil. I'm trying to think of another, Wycliffe, some other towns that like, we call them towns but if you [00:55:00] were driving through there, you'd be like, what are y'all talking about?

But at the time when they were building the plant, they had like movie theaters. It's like mind blowing to me that like Wycliffe had a movie theater and grocery stores in this huge influx of people and that was just to build it. Okay. So it got built in 1952 and it was picked as one of the few sites. I think they had like, you know, 12 sites to choose from and it was one of the six chosen by the government to do this uranium enrichment, first for nuclear weapons and then over time it became a source for low enriched uranium for nuclear power fuel. Okay. So it ran from 1952 to 2013. Um, it was operating for a very, very long time. A lot of, a lot of, um, you know, people point to the big power players like Albin Barkley, who was vice-president is credited with sort of like pushing to get the site here. Mitch McConnell is credited for keeping it open for so long. I think at one point it was like the only [00:56:00] one operating in the uranium enrichment plant operating in the United States.

So now it is a cleanup site. So the government sold it to like a corporation that does the cleanup it's, uh, A Superfund site, as we, as I mentioned, um, I think in one of the Patreon comments, I don't even remember, but it is a Superfund site. I think we talked about on the show and it's so interesting to watch like the, the way the contracting works for the cleanup and the way that like it's broken down and some people's contract will end with the federal government and somebody else will bring it in and, but what's exciting to me, especially as I was listening to your series. Probably a couple of years ago and we've met with people and we will go to our chamber days, um, in Washington, DC, some of these smaller companies that are trying to figure out how to take the waste from the enrichment and use it for power.

That's the technology that's really exciting to me, especially after like Bill Gates in this PBS special said that there's, I think I forgot what they're called. [00:57:00] So they were producing the uranium for the rods, like you talked about, but there's something left over and they call it, I think they're called pellets maybe and there's like enough of these pellets being stored in Paducah to power the entire United States for like decades and ever since Bill Gates, I've heard Bill Gates say that I'm like obsessed with this idea that that Paducah could be the energy source for the whole country. I mean, they used to call us the Atomic City. Like that was what west Paducah was. There was like a sign called the atomic city on my way out to high school.

There's a lot of businesses still that will like, we have the atomic city roller girls and there's like an, a new atomic city, like a indoor go-kart track now, like, so that it's still, you know, around and in the story and narrative of our city and obviously, you know, it was hugely important. I think one of the big things that you see a lot that happened in Paducah is when, so you had the influx of people building the plant, but then you had an influx of highly educated people running the plants and you saw like, so we have a huge arts [00:58:00] community in Paducah. We have a symphony and things like you wouldn't expect from a small town in Paducah or in Western Kentucky and that came from the plant because we had this influx of people in running the plant and they wanted the things that they used to get in cities like symphonies and museums and whatever, nice restaurants and so I think, you know, I think our town, we have so much, we owe so much to the plant as far as our economy and even our like sort of culture and you know, that's not to say it was without problems.

Obviously we never had like a meltdown or anything, any terrible accident. There are some employees that have sued the government. I didn't, I was looking at the lawsuits and the Wikipedia page. This was issued in the eighties, a family of former employee, Joe Hardy brought a lawsuit relating to medical conditions that he believed incurred while having worked at the Paducah plant and his widow eventually settled for just 12 thousand dollars. I thought it was kind of crazy. That was such a small amount of money, but there, I mean, you know, there's jokes about the plan and what it does, but I've never [00:59:00] experienced or seen that. It's not like my family who my grandmother grew up in west Paducah. We all attended the high school out there had any sort of increased cancer incidences or anything like that. Now that's just anecdotal, I understand. But I see it as a real positive for our community and it was really hard when it got shut down um, even though.

Beth: [00:59:18] Um, why did it get shut down? Can you tell that part of the story?

Sarah: [00:59:21] 2013. I mean, it was operating for over 50 years.

Beth: [00:59:23] But do you know why?

Sarah: [00:59:24] I think because there wasn't demand for the enriched uranium, either from the weapons or the energy component. Um, and they'd kept it open as long as they could. Now, again, it's still an employer based on the cleanup and all that, but, you know, I would love to see it functioning. I would, again, especially if we could figure out a way to use the waste in particular. I think that would be amazing.

Beth: [00:59:44] Yeah and especially, I know it's uranium, but the plutonium aspect seemed exciting to me. The fact that you're, you're always creating more inputs, basically, even as you cycle through it. Hugely dangerous and, and when I think about the [01:00:00] fusion prospect, I both feel like that sounds terrifying for human beings to have that power, but also fantastic. Like just the energy potential of it is fantastic.

Sarah: [01:00:11] It sure is the center point of like so many spy novels, so many military movies. Like, you know, like I feel like all the movies in the eighties were like, we did it nuclear fusion, like that's this center thing that they all wrote. They all rotate around.

Beth: [01:00:35] When thinking about risks and benefits, I feel a little bit like the three major accidents and this is not a perfect metaphor, but the three major accidents feel a little bit like mass shootings where the gun deaths feel like fossil fuels. Like the places when it happens, it's really, really awful and we should care about it and [01:01:00] we should mitigate against it and also it's the things that we aren't talking about that are killing more people and just the way that coal and oil silently kill so many people and silently take so much away from the environment. I just think it's important to like balance out our concerns here and, and the potential to so reliably decrease our fossil fuel usage. You know, I, I think solar and wind should be invested into, I think it should be a portfolio of options. We should be exploring everything, but man, the reliability and just the sheer volume available through nuclear is hard to argue with.

Sarah: [01:01:40] Well, that's the thing and, and I feel like as a. I know it's massively expensive and it's a huge lift to build new. That's why, to me, it's like, isn't, if you're worried about this technology and its impact on the world through weapons, to me, acknowledging that we do have a lot of sites that we built up for weapon capacities, like the one in [01:02:00] Paducah and transforming them into something positive, like sustainable energy. It's just, it feels like a win-win to me and it's not like we can't see it. I mean, like France has massive amounts of nuclear energy.

Beth: [01:02:12] I am in search of an ethical framework for climate change, which I touched on a little bit in yesterday's episode and I wanted to get your thoughts on that. Like I really struggle with, because I think everything we talk about in terms of climate, the disagreement is really the good faith disagreement is really about timeline. For whom are we planning? For whom are we worrying for? Whom are we protecting and in what generation does this come to fruition? And what do we owe down the line?

And I really struggled because I take seriously the counter arguments that people make about the massive disruption to our lives, that a full throttle effort against climate change will require and I [01:03:00] understand that not everybody is up for that and that a lot of people will experience significant hardship and I, and I take those arguments seriously and so when I think through the ethics of it, I just, I want someone to help me. I want a good like Ted talk or something, or a good white paper walking me through here's how we can think about.

Sarah: [01:03:19] Yeah, no, I think that's really hard, especially because we, we so like binaries and we so want like this or that and when, especially like when you're talking about sustainable energy with wind and solar and nuclear. Like, it's not as simple as like, just this will distill this way because this is bad. This is good so we'll head towards the good direction. It's so much more complicated. I did have a question cause I'm intrigued by the idea of like the water and the water is so hot when we return it to the source and I was like, Ooh, I do not know if that's what they're doing or did in Paducah. Is there no, is there no effort to cool the water before we put it back?

Beth: [01:03:55] There's a massive effort to cool the water. It's just, it sits for a long [01:04:00] time before it goes back to the source. It is just that hot. It is still so hot when they return it and I think that the use of liquid sodium is going to help with that if I'm understanding the research properly. I also think, you know, I didn't talk much about heavy water reactors. Like there are other ways to do this and I think that's my biggest thought right now. Like the places where I feel the most hesitant, I think a serious effort at research and development, we can solve those problems. I really believe we can solve those problems. Yeah.

Sarah: [01:04:31] That's what we need to, I think you're right. We need the federal government. That's definitely the sense I got about using some of the waste from this process in the energy production is like, it's just hugely expensive for these people to figure it. Like, that's what I remember we had a meeting in DC and the, the sense I got was like, we know we have the technology, we know it works. We can't figure out how to scale it because it's so expensive to scale it and how are we going to do that as a private company? That's where we need the federal government.

[01:05:00] Beth: [01:05:00] And I also have a feeling that if we make that massive effort and the public gets behind it and the science goes there, it will be exponential. In the returns, you know, just like with the mRNA technology, I think we're just going to exponentially see vaccines and therapies and treatments come from that because the money's there now and the will is there. And I, I really have the same sense about nuclear and I, you know, bill gates has talked about how much money he has put into and lost on trying to develop better Lithium batteries. If it's more than just Bill Gates. I mean, like if everybody's going at it, if we did sort of a moonshot around this. Yeah. I just think we could do it. I really do.

Sarah: [01:05:44] No, I agree.

Beth: [01:05:46] I think it's worth it because this really would a lot of the angst about reliability. I mean, I, I hate that the conversation around what happened in Texas became primarily about [01:06:00] wind because wind was a teeny tiny piece of the overall grid in Texas. There is legitimacy though, to wind is not being very reliable and legitimacy and thinking about how much physical space you need for wind and how very far that physical space is from the major metropolitan areas that pull the most electricity and so I think I'm more honest conversation about each type of renewable energy and where it would best serve us is, is really called for and I hope that we can kind of move in that direction instead of just like wind bad.

Sarah: [01:06:36] I mean, I read a really interesting article. I think I talked about this on the show of like this guy, Australian guy who made his fortune on fossil fields in Australia and is like, no, I'm following the money and the money's in renewable and where they're going to get left behind so we better follow it too and I think that that's the economy. I mean, man, did you see that article about Exxon today? That's like the morale is terrible. They're laying off all these people, their businesses just bottoming out. Like it's [01:07:00] just, the economy is going that way.

Beth: [01:07:01] So, and that's terrible, like, that's a real, like, I don't love that for those companies and people. I don't, maybe the companies I care less about, but the people within the companies, even the decision makers in those companies, like we are going to need some of the know-how and some of the equipment and experience from anybody who has extracted something for, from the earth for just about anything we do. Like there is not a, there's not a zero emissions energy strategy ever, right or a zero carbon footprint, or, you know, with nuclear, there's still mining involved. I think a lot of that could translate to geothermal. Like I want us to get serious about converting what we know in a way that is good for the short term, as much as possible in addition to being better for the longterm.

Sarah: [01:07:50] Well, there's no zero anything. My friend sent me a really good article about the science and the MRNA and the vaccines and like there people talk about as if they want zero risk. Well, that's not a [01:08:00] thing. Not a thing we need to let that go.

Beth: [01:08:02] That's right. Well, thank you for telling us about Paducah. This has been a joy. Listen, I hated science so much in school. I was not good at it. I never understood, like when they started talking about atoms in school, I was just like, I'm gone. I'm writing poems in my head. I'm done. But it was really fun to think about it in a particular context.

Sarah: [01:08:24] Yeah, for sure. That helps a lot. I agree.

Beth: [01:08:26] Yeah, it does.

Sarah: [01:08:29] Thanks so much for joining us for this deep dive into nuclear power. We hope this gets you excited for our upcoming infrastructure series. Also, if you liked this content and are not signed up to get our bonus content through Patreon or Apple podcast subscriptions, we hope you will consider joining us in those communities. Have the best week available to you.

Beth: Pantsuit Politics is produced by Studio D Podcast Production.

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630 episodes