Uday Mehta

Engineer | Writer | Podcaster

Why is Nuclear Power Not in the Green New Deal?

Editor's Note: Hey, it's Uday, I'm also the editor because I don't have the money to hire an editor. One of my ambitions is to see energy become clean, cheap, and accessible to all, and I believe that nuclear power is the best way to get there. Here’s the disclaimer – I’m just a nuclear engineer by training. I don’t have a PhD. I haven’t been doing this for decades. I’m just someone who understands the science and can put 2 and 2 together. I hope you find this informative and interesting. If you do, and you want to learn more, please check out the companion pieces in my ‘How Will It Kill Me’ series, including those about Radiation, Waste, and Chernobyl.

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I'm not against progress. Especially in context of a government that is intentionally designed to be slow-moving, even incremental progress is good. And to most of the environmentally conscious, the Green New Deal might seem like a successful first step. It exists currently as an unpassed resolution that is a ways away from being anything more – it will arrive on the Senate floor for a vote sometime this week where it is expected to fail, with Democrats themselves choosing to abstain on the vote as an act of protest. There is some debate as to the political logic of introducing these ideas as a resolution first instead of a detailed policy proposal that could be voted on as a binding piece of legislation, as the ground gained by moving the Overton window on the issue finely counterbalances the ease by which its opponents can cast it as a Socialist fantasy. Even though there is room for modification, improvement, and even omission, it is essential that even as a resolution, this document gets it right. Unfortunately, in its current iteration, there is at least one glaring flaw.

Nowhere over the admittedly short but incredibly ambitious fourteen page document does the word "nuclear" appear. And for something that's called a 'green' deal, nuclear is a nonnegotiable inclusion. The bits about energy include "meeting 100% of the power demand in the United States through, clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources" and "dramatically expanding and upgrading renewable power sources." Even with a generous interpretation, there's no way that could be read as nuclear-friendly, never mind an open endorsement. If you were to ask the average American what was implied by these excerpts, they would likely pivot to power sources like wind and solar, or perhaps even geothermal and hydroelectric. Nuclear power is by definition not a renewable resource – the wind will always (eventually) blow, the sun will always (hopefully) show up, but nuclear power actually requires a non-renewable fuel to use. So it's hard to see a future iteration of the Deal, one fully fledged and ready for a presidential signature, that has text plainly and unambiguously advocating for the most energetic reactions in all of science.

The specific callout of nuclear power as one of these clean and zero-emission power sources for the future is important to both the actual legislation and the larger acknowledgment of nuclear viability as a whole. And it matters, because we cannot afford to bet our entire future on technologies that are unreliable, inefficient, costly, and unfeasible at scale, especially when a clearly superior one stands before us.

In just thirty years since the first nuclear reactor was built, upwards of 400 nuclear reactors were in operation worldwide. The thirty years since have seen a tremendous stagnation, likely due to a combination of the creation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the avalanche of regulation it wrought on the industry, and the worsening public impression of anything nuclear-adjacent. Given this, you'd probably imagine that nuclear power has many obstacles to overcome before it can make a realistic push for seat at the power generating table.

But this is no underdog story. If I asked you what percent of the world's power comes from nuclear, you'd probably say… one? Two? It's actually around 11%. If you're looking at just the States, that number rises to 20% – a full fifth! Right now! Even powering a fifth of America with nuclear has saved the same amount of Carbon emissions as taking 100 million cars off the road would have. That number is even more impressive when contrasted with the vaunted renewables, as nuclear still accounts for four times as much of the world's carbon-free electricity as wind and solar combined. This is far from an unproven concept. This is reality.

Nuclear, like most science, struggles from its branding and relatability. The nuclear world doesn't have its equivalent of a Neil Degrasse Tyson, an ambassador to laud its virtues and bridge the scientific and non-scientific worlds. And it's a shame, because you don't have to go deep in the science to grasp some basic, inescapable facts about nuclear power that everyone should know. So for the next 2000 words at least, let me don my trefoil tie and be your Dr. Tyson, and present the facts that will make you an advocate for nuclear as your power of choice. 

Note: Rather than hyperlinking this to hell and trying to bias you with sources that I prefer, I'll let you confirm that what I'm saying is true by doing your own research – there are fact sheets you can find from a number of reputable sources, complete with high-quality data visualization. All of the numbers presented here are sourced; different sources will give you different numbers especially when it comes to projections, but they all convey the same overarching idea.

 

Why Nuclear Is Good

At the risk of burying the lead, here's the undeniable, important truth: a chunk of Uranium that you can hold in your hand has enough unlockable energy to power your personal energy needs for the rest of your life.

Just think about that for a second. It's so powerful that Thanos is probably out to find some right now. In comparison, a nuclear fuel pellet the size of your fingernail gives you the same amount of power as thousands of pounds of coal, hundreds of gallons of oil, or more than several hours of runtime for a wind turbine. Yet another way – a solar farm that has the same energy output as a nuclear power plant will take up more than 100 times as much physical space, and a wind farm will be double that! In case the point *still* isn't clear, here's one more comparison: a pound of nuclear fuel could have powered a lightbulb since the death of Jesus, while a pound of coal or natural gas fuel wouldn't have even kept the lights on for his resurrection just three days later. Do you get it yet? Do you?

There's not even a fancy explanation here, this comes down to pure science – the amount of energy you get from nuclear is greater per unit of mass (or per volume, or per nucleon, whatever metric you want to use). And there is no carbon dioxide or any other kind of air pollution to worry about. The waste products you get from nuclear are a little bit different, but let's hold that thought for a second.

Why Renewables Aren't Good

It's not just that everything's better with nuclear: there are many serious concerns with renewables that are often glossed over. While the energy production itself is environmentally clean, there's actually a carbon emissions cost that goes into actually making things like solar panels – ingredients like Aluminum, Silver, Zinc, Copper, and Titanium all have to be… mined! Getting them out of the earth is problematic enough, and disposing of them once they've passed their useful life only compounds the problem. Wind plants need (metric) shit-tons of concrete, and solar needs (literal) kilotons of steel. And while nuclear does need to mine and process Uranium ore, remember the amount of fuel we need to get the same amount of energy? It all comes back to that idea – you barely need any Uranium to get immense amounts of energy, so the environmental costs of mining it aren't going to be close to those of renewables.

Another big caveat is that sources like wind and solar are legitimately variable – more household power is used in the hours of the evening and night, when the sun isn't known to shine. And while using 'the wind doesn't blow, turn off the TV' as an argument is slightly reductive, there's validity to the sentiment.  On your average overcast January morning, you'd be lucky to get even 1% of the power that you need from solar. So not only do you have to invest in this incredibly dynamic source, you also have to invest in storage so that the electricity is deployable when you need it. Regardless of how much the technology improves, the fundamental truth will remain that you will eventually need wind and sunlight to generate electricity, and leaving any factor out of your control is foolish at best. The magnitude of this unreliability is remarkable – a wind turbine might say one thing on the packaging (the nameplate value) but the actual power output falls well short because of the volatility of wind; we're talking barely 10% of the maximum output it's rated for. Nuclear, which consistently gives you 90% of its maximum rating, does not practice in false advertising.

For all the times that renewables fall short, you're going to need a backup method to make up the difference. And this unfortunately gives rise to a symbiotic partnership – coal and natural gas lobbies are well aware that renewables are not scalable solutions, so they're not a realistic threat to the energy crown. There are even hybrid coal/solar plants, standing symbols of the co-dependence of these approaches. These lobbies don't mind that renewables take up a small piece of the pie, because you'll always need that fail-safe when the sun isn't shining. Even worse, to some 'slacktivists', renewables having a seat at the table is victory enough.

The allure of using things like fossil fuels is that they're cheap and plentiful, the environment be damned. Renewables, while somewhat better for the environment, are incredibly expensive. And it's not just a 'fine-I-guess-you-can-add-guac' kind of expensive, but 'I-think-I-want-ten-quesaritos' expensive ($3.50 more for melted cheese??). Again, this is not a theoretical exercise – Denmark and Germany, the world's two biggest investors in wind and solar (per capita) have the highest energy costs in all of Europe. And these aren't just outliers, the trend is conclusively linear: the more of a wind/solar fetish you have, the more you'll end up paying per unit of electricity. The Green New Deal might not get as much publicity for the 'new deal' part as it does for the 'green' part, but the economics of power generation can't be summarily dismissed, especially when the disparity is as staggering as it is.

Why Nuclear Isn't Scary

For the uninitiated, the reluctance of much of the developed world to pivot to nuclear power is not a technical problem , but rather of public perception. Decades have passed since the likes of famous nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Comparing an antiquated reactor built by the Soviet Union where engineers intentionally turned off the safety systems to today's safe, reliable reactor designs is just a bad faith argument. And pointing to Fukushima as something more recent – though in 2019, even that seems far in the rear-view mirror – ignores that the culprit was not the fifty-year-old nuclear power plant itself, but rather a mechanical failure of emergency power (perhaps a distinction that isn't important when it comes to loss of life, but one that is definitely important when critically assessing the safety of nuclear).

The mere fact that you can count on your fingers the number of notable nuclear incidents is in itself a credit to the technology, whereas things like oil spills are so commonplace that last year's Sanchi tanker collision in the East China Sea (the worst spill in terms of volume since 2010's infamous Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico) went largely unnoticed. Deaths of coal miners are in the double digits almost every year, while the deaths from nuclear power plant accidents going back to Chernobyl have a *total* below 60. Total! Just this week, we'll hit the 40-year-anniversary of Three Mile Island, the worst nuclear accident in American history, one that resulted in… ZERO deaths. None! Plus, it is generally agreed upon that there were few adverse health effects stemming from the accident. It's worth noting that since the accident (which was again, 40 years ago), there hasn't been a single accident (where 'accident' refers to something that caused a radioactive release) in the United States.

But forget about immediate death, can't radiation get us killed, or worse, expelled? Doesn't it cause *shudders* cancer? Are you saying I'll have to freeze my sperm? (Well no, but at least if you do freeze your sperm, the fridge won't run out of power because the moon didn't feel like doing its job today.) If you're afraid of radiation, you might want to skip the next few sentences. There are things called cosmic rays – high-energy particles that come from far away (like, other galaxies far) to rain down on you every second of the day. Seriously, there are smartphone apps that can actually show you just how many rays you're interacting with. And if you're thinking of going underground, there's also dangerous shit there too. Elements like Lead, Actinium, and Potassium are all going to find you and… kill you. Well, not really, but you will get radiation. Just like you would from going on a flight, getting a CAT scan, or (over a long period of time) eating food. In the approximately 100 operational nuclear power reactors in the United States, there are collectively thousands of workers, all of whom are routinely monitored for radiation exposure. There's a cute little formula that you learn in the first week of any nuclear engineering class – the total dose you get is a function of time, distance, and shielding. If you're eye-to-eye to a radiation source for a very long time with nothing between you… well even then, it might not even harm you that much, but imagine being miles away with buildings between you.

Remember how a fuel pellet you can fit in your hand is all you need? Well the amount of waste it would generate is just about the same amount. And instead of dumping the waste in the ocean, you just let nuclear waste sit. That's it. It doesn't do anything, it's not bad for the environment, it just sits there. Things that are radioactive stop being radioactive over a long period of time, so you just have to wait it out. And contrary to what movies would have you believe, you can't just take nuclear waste or a piece of a power reactor and use it as a bomb, so it's not like Bane is going to show up at the front door.

Why Nuclear Works

Note: I said I wasn't going to get into the science, but here's the high-level view. Skip the next 400 words if you don't care, or if you're more than two drinks in at this point.

We've all heard of the famous formula E = mc^2, right? It's actually not complicated – it just means that energy can be turned into mass and vice-versa – but it has incredible implications. Elements used as nuclear fuel – primarily Uranium, Plutonium, and Thorium –  are all heavy elements at the very bottom of the periodic table, that thing hanging in the corner of every science classroom that you gazed at while dozing off. These heavy elements are unstable because they have lots of protons and way more neutrons, which results in all sorts of crazy forces. So when you forcefully break apart (fission) one of these heavy elements, it'll usually break into two lighter elements. However, the masses of these 'products' will not be equal to the mass of the original heavy element. That difference in mass is converted to energy, as is possible by our favorite equation. And it just so happens that fissioning these elements results in a big mass gap, and thus tremendous amounts of energy. (Fusion, which is the opposite process where you combine elements instead of breaking them apart, largely uses the same scientific concepts. It also needs really high temperatures to work, and as of 2019 hasn't been harnessed.)

As you'd imagine, fission requires very specific conditions to sustain. The idea is that you have a fuel, and you shoot a neutron particle at it, which starts the reaction. The reaction produces a bunch of energy and also produces more neutrons, which can hit more fuel particles and keep this chain reaction going. The trick is that the neutrons have to be travelling at relatively slow speeds when they hit the fuel, otherwise the reaction doesn't work. So not only do you have to slow down the neutrons (the most popular material to 'moderate' the speed of neutrons is water), you also have to keep them in the system. If they escape, they're pretty much wasted, and if you lose too many neutrons then the chain reaction might stop. All this to say that it's hard to intentionally make 'critical' fission happen.

Turns out, nature managed to do this by itself in the Gabonese Republic in Africa. This also produced nuclear waste, which is a useful unintentional experiment in how waste interacts with its environment. This 'natural reactor' was active almost 2 billion years ago, and the waste didn't really move all that much. Gabon isn't a desolate wasteland, but a relatively prosperous country relative to its region. So if nature can safely handle nuclear waste, why can't we – a species advanced enough to create something like the turducken – do the same?

Why It Matters

If you think of the world nuclear, it's likely that the instant word associations would be things like "bomb", "weapon", "radiation", or "waste" – all before you got to "power" or "energy". And that's why we don't talk about nuclear more, or include it in our signature environmental and economic policies.

Nuclear takes the inexpensiveness of fossil fuels and combines them with the environmentally- nature of renewables, all while killing fewer people, taking up less space, producing waste both smaller in quantity and less environmentally impactful. And all that corn that you don't have to waste on making ethanol can actually go to feeding people! It all sounds too good to be true, right? It's like when presidential candidate Donald Trump told his supporters during a rally that he would replace Obamacare with something bigger, better, and cheaper, where you would get more coverage, keep your doctors, and Mexico would somehow end up paying for it. Except this is for real. This isn't something that only resides in the fever dreams of particle physicists. This is a decades-old technology that has continued to advance despite the immense resistance from an uneducated populace whose willful ignorance is the fuel of choice of vastly wealthy political lobbies.

If you were building an energy system from scratch, say in a hypothetical new country, you would logically choose nuclear. But the world we live in makes the burdens of reforming an existing system are painfully clear – we don't have the luxury of starting over. Unfortunately, we also don't have the luxury of slowly scaling back over time. This isn't like healthcare, where incremental progress leaves room for further improvement and should be celebrated. Consider the Earth like you would the lungs of a pack-a-day smoker – we're at a point when we can't cut down by one cigarette every month and eventually settle on half a pack as our ultimate goal. That would just slow the inevitable deterioration of the lungs, but if we instead stopped smoking entirely tomorrow, every day forthwith would help undo some of the damage.

This is the rare window when a solution to the threat of climate change has both mainstream and grassroots backing, and enough political goodwill exists for national leaders to make some headway on the issue. Squandering it by the use of vague language and lesser methods would not only be a political tragedy, but an environmental one as well. Fortunately, introducing the Green New Deal in its current form allows for such debate and implies an openness to different paths forward. But it's unclear where the support will come from – Congress boasts less than two dozen scientists and engineers, none of them with national visibility or technical expertise in this field. We can only hope that for once – at a time when we truly face a thousand years of darkness, we just might listen to the experts.

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If you want to learn more, please check out the companion pieces in my ‘How Will It Kill Me’ series, including those about Radiation, Waste, and Chernobyl. These take complicated concepts and simplify the science down to the things that you need to know as a potential consumer of nuclear power.

There are also some miscellaneous questions that didn't fit into any of these pieces which I'll address here as footnotes:

  • Is there a nuclear lobby that can advocate strongly for nuclear power?
    The problem here is that the other lobbies are infinitely wealthier. In 2018, the spending on oil and gas was upwards of $120 million, whereas the Nuclear Energy Institute spent around $2 million (no other pro-nuclear organization topped half a million). The way the United States Senate is set up also works against this, as many midwestern states (which have equal representation as the large coastal states) have a prominent coal mining or fracking presence. Most of the nuclear reactors are clustered in the eastern half of the country (there are only three west of Texas) and again, there are so few in total that the number of workers doesn't come into play when it comes to getting votes.

  • Is terrorism a genuine concern?
    Not really. This is actually where the regulation comes in handy, since everything is so tightly controlled and managed. Let's consider Uranium (this will get a bit science-heavy again). There are two primary isotopes of interest – isotopes are the same element with different numbers of neutrons, so Uranium-235 has 92 protons (the number of protons defines an element, so Uranium will always have 92 protons) and 235 - 92 = 143 neutrons. Uranium-238 again has 92 protons, and 238 - 92 = 146 neutrons. The specific number of neutrons (the isotope) is very important, because it makes Uranium-235 unstable in a very specific way that allows the fission reaction to work the way it does. Most of the Uranium in the ground is U-238, and there's a way to process it (enrichment) to make it U-235.
    For a traditional reactor, you're looking at a fuel that would be about 20% U-235 and the rest (80%) U-238, which is called 20% enriched. For a bomb, you'd have to have something that's 90% enriched, otherwise, you can't really get an uncontrolled reaction that's going to cause a lot of damage. So not only would a potential terrorist have to acquire material destined for a reactor, but they'd have to have a whole enrichment plant set up. Realistically, this is only stuff that governments are capable of, not 'lone wolves'.
    A terrorist could divert nuclear material and use it to expose civilians to radiation, but the effects here would be minimal. Remember that exposure is a function of time, distance, and shielding, so someone would have to be right next to some Uranium for a prolonged time. Unless someone breathed in or ingested some particles, the health effects are negligible. Moreover, the number of people that could be affected is extremely small.

  • You mentioned Fusion. What's up with that?
    Fusion also uses the concepts of energy-mass equivalence and binding energy, but instead of breaking an atom apart, it combines (or 'fuses') two atoms together. Here, we're talking about the lightest possible elements (the ones at the very beginning of the Periodic Table) like Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, and Boron, none of which are radioactive. That the waste products (primarily Helium, but also other light elements like Hydrogen, Lithium, and Beryllium) are also not radioactive. The key is that elements required for fission are all radioactive and unstable such that they're ready to break apart and cause other things to break apart (the chain reaction) with a little push. These light elements are the opposite – they absolutely don't want to be fused together.
    Unfortunately, there is a catch here. The way fusion works is that you have to bring two nuclei close enough for them to fuse together. But particles that are similarly charged repel each other, an effect known as the electrostatic force. To overcome this force, the particles have to be accelerated at incredible speeds, which requires high temperatures (at which point these elements will go from gases to plasmas). These temperatures are on the order of the temperature of the sun (or any star, since fusion is how all stars generate heat and light), about 100 million Kelvin.
    One advantage of using temperatures this high is that given a loss of power (a Fukushima-type incident), the reaction will stop because the plasma will turn back into a gas. Since fusion requires such a specific high temperature to work, dropping even slightly below that will make it impossible for fusion to occur, so you don't need to rely on a coolant. Also, fusion doesn't involve a chain reaction like fission does, so the rest of the fuel in the reactor doesn't fuse unless you specifically want it to.
    You might wonder whether it's worth it – if such specific and intense conditions are required to get there, how much energy do you really get out of it? Think of a really deep well at the very top of a very tall mountain. The well is deeper than the mountain is tall, so if you were to get a ball to the top of the mountain and into the well, it would drop all the way down and its final position would be lower than its initial position. Of course, the problem is that getting the ball to the top of the mountain is going to require a lot of energy.
    While fusion is the holy grail of energy production, it wasn't presented for inclusion in the Green New Deal because the technology is so far out. By the time that fusion is made possible, we would already have passed our doomsday point-of-no-return for the effects of climate change.

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