Aug 25 2017

John Oliver and the Nuclear Waste Hubbub

yuccamountainThe most recent episode of John Oliver’s, Last Week Tonight, featured a discussion of how we handle (or don’t handle) nuclear waste in the US. This has spawned an interesting discussion among skeptics and scientists, including this response from a nuclear scientist on Forbes.

My overall impression is that there are legitimate points on both sides, and which points one emphasizes probably depends on whether they are pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear.

My reaction to Oliver’s piece was that it was reasonable, made a lot of good points I had made myself, and that it was not anti-nuclear. I don’t know if Oliver is pro or anti-nuclear based on this piece. The theme of his show is highlighting crazy things in our society that should be fixed, if only we had the political will to do so. The main point of his piece is that we currently store commercial nuclear waste on site where it is produced. We don’t have any central long term repository for this waste, despite the fact that we obviously should.

The main point of the discussion was Yucca Mountain, a nuclear waste storage facility in Nevada that took years and billions of dollars to research and build, that is a completely safe location to store commercial nuclear waste, but which sits empty for political reasons. Oliver correctly puts the blame mostly on Senator Harry Reid from Nevada who killed Yucca Mountain for purely NIMBY reasons (not in my back yard). It is a legit scandal and Oliver was correct to call Reid out on it and mock him.

Most of the criticism of Oliver’s piece focuses on what he did not say, which is always tricky criticism. Oliver has 20 minutes to tell a complex story, and he has to focus on one main point. He was not discussing the risks and benefits of nuclear power. He was not comparing it to other methods of energy production. He was only pointing out that in the last 50 years we have not been able to summon the political will to put our nuclear waste in a proper long term facility.

However, in many similar episodes Oliver is fond of saying, “To be fair,” followed by caveats that put his main point into perspective. He didn’t do that in this episode, and if he did I think it would have gone a long way to counter some of the criticism.

He could have said, to be fair overall nuclear power is very safe. Forbes also published an article in which they list deaths per trillion kWhr for various energy sources:

Energy Source Mortality Rate (deaths/trillionkWhr)

Coal – global average 100,000 (41% global electricity)

Coal – China 170,000 (75% China’s electricity)

Coal – U.S. 10,000 (32% U.S. electricity)

Oil 36,000 (33% of energy, 8% of electricity)

Natural Gas 4,000 (22% global electricity)

Biofuel/Biomass 24,000 (21% global energy)

Solar (rooftop) 440 (< 1% global electricity)

Wind 150 (2% global electricity)

Hydro – global average 1,400 (16% global electricity)

Hydro – U.S. 5 (6% U.S. electricity)

Nuclear – global average 90 (11% global electricity w/Chern&Fukush)

Nuclear – U.S. 0.1 (19% U.S. electricity)

Other sources give similar numbers – this one claims that coal deaths are 4,000:1 over nuclear deaths (if you take the global averages above you get a ratio of 1,111:1. In fact coal ash (waste from coal burning) is also radioactive and poses a greater health hazard to nearby communities than nuclear waste.

Then again, Oliver wasn’t comparing different forms of energy production, only that we stupidly won’t activate Yucca mountain and put our nuclear waste there, when we obviously should. Still, critics have a point. The piece does not exist in a vacuum, and Oliver and his team should have anticipated that it would be viewed as an anti-nuclear piece and given at least one reassuring caveat (unless, of course, he is ultimately anti-nuclear).

Perhaps Oliver overemphasized how dangerous nuclear waste is in order to make the decision not to store it in Yucca Mountain seem all the dumber. But this is a judgment call. There is no question nuclear waste is hazardous and should be properly stored. There is no question that leaving it is pools near nuclear power plants is not a good method for long term storage – no scientist or regulator thinks it is. Quibbling about how hazardous a waste it is, and how it compares to other wastes, was not really the point of the piece.

What About Nuclear Power?

Going beyond the Oliver piece – what about nuclear power as an option? Like all energy sources, it is not perfect, and it has strengths and weaknesses. Fans can emphasize the advantages and critics can emphasize the downsides. I think we have to recognize all legitimate points on both sides.

Overall, as I said, I am pro nuclear in that I think we will probably need nuclear power this century to meet our energy needs while minimizing greenhouse gas production. Nuclear, all things considered, is superior to all forms of fossil fuel for base energy production. You can make an argument for natural gas, which is also a relatively good short term option (far better than coal). Coal should be phased out.

The advantage of nuclear are that it can produce a massive amount of energy continuously, so it is great for base load production. It is relatively safe. It does not release greenhouse gases (the production of the facilities does, but that is one-time, not operational). We can deal with the waste if we decide we want to.

There are two big downsides to nuclear. The first is that it is expensive, and it getting relatively more cost ineffective as the cost of renewables steadily decreases. However – if we consider the full cost of pollution and global warming, I think nuclear becomes cost effective again. It’s worth the investment.

The other major downside is that it takes decades to build a nuclear power facility, including doing the site research, getting the permits, and doing the construction. Many people argue that 50 years is simply too long to have any significant impact on global warming. By the time new plants come online our energy technology will be very different.

However, if we really wanted to we could build nuclear plants safely much more quickly. By some estimates we would need to build about 50 reactors worldwide a year over the next 60 years to have a significant impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is not much higher than historic rates, if we extrapolate from countries like France when they were building their nuclear infrastructure.

This does not even consider next generation nuclear designs. We are currently using generation II power plants. Generation III plants with improved safety features are already being built (not in the US), and we are developing generation IV designs that could be built this century.

With regard to the expense argument, worldwide the fossil fuels industry is subsidized to the tune of $775 million to $1 trillion dollars. Investing this money instead in nuclear energy would be a good investment.

The major alternative to more nuclear energy proposed by opponents is renewable energy. I am also a big fan of renewable energy and think we should maximize its contribution to our energy infrastructure. Distributed renewable sources of energy like wind and solar are the way to go. Solar specifically, I think, is our future. So why not just invest massively in renewables?

These are not mutually exclusive options. I think we should do both. But renewables have a major limitation that is often glossed over by some proponents, especially those saying we don’t need nuclear. Renewables are intermittent. In order to displace base load production like nuclear or fossil fuel we need massive grid storage. We don’t currently have massive grid storage. Proponents say – well, we are developing massive grid storage, so it will all be fine.

But that is a huge gamble. That is like saying, well, we don’t have a way to safely store hydrogen in a usable form, but I’m sure we’ll find a way and hydrogen power will be the wave of the future. At least so far, things did not turn out that way. Some technical hurdles prove more difficult than we initially hoped.

We simply don’t know how long it will take to develop a form of grid storage that is scalable to what we need. We cannot rely on overly optimistic projections. Sure, we need to develop grid storage options. I just don’t think we can put all our eggs in that basket. Grid storage is a non-trivial problem and will likely delay reliance on intermittent sources for decades, if not a century.

Meanwhile, fire up those generation IV nuclear power plants.


Actually, I really don’t have hard opinions on the topic of an optimal energy infrastructure. I have no ideology at stake. What I want is whatever science says is the best option or combination of options. I will happily revise any opinions based upon evidence and expert opinion.

At present I think we should be rapidly shifting to an infrastructure that causes minimal pollution, minimal greenhouse gases, that is safe and reliable. What I think is the current best interpretation of all the evidence is this:

  • We should rapidly phase out coal
  • We should continue to use natural gas for now but phase it out when other options are available
  • We need to upgrade our energy grid
  • We need to develop massive grid storage
  • We should continue to develop wind and solar infrastructure and technology
  • We should develop next generation nuclear power plants as quickly as we can
  • We should activate Yucca Mountain to store our waste, and Harry Reid should be given a lollipop.

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