An Upbeat Look at Nuclear with Rod Adams

Robert Bryce’s Power Hungry podcast has a excellent interview with longtime nuclear energy blogger and podcaster Rod Adams. It’s almost two hours and has rather few views so I thought I’d post a little bit of background and highlights.

Rod Adams is a slightly gruff looking Annapolis graduate (a ring knocker as he calls himself) and former submarine nuclear officer. His voice sort of reminds me of the late great James Gandolfini. He’s certainly the world’s most prominent blogger and podcaster on nuclear energy. He cares very deeply about the importance of nuclear energy for human well being. His podcasts start with a catchy jingle, There’s a Better Way. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject and his blog posts and podcast can get rather technical. Bryce does a great job of making this an accessible overview.

Lately, Michael Shellenberger has been getting a lot of attention promoting nuclear. He sort of gives the impression that too much attention is being paid to newer reactor designs and that large AP1000 type designs are the way to go, especially with Russia and China moving ahead. Shellenberger is admittedly not a STEM person, but he has educated himself and has a good overview of the basic concepts. Adams pretty much lives and breaths this stuff and follows the industry and new developments very closely. He’s excited about a new generation of driven people who see an opportunity to transform the future. BTW Adams has a great podcast interview with Shellenberger about his new book.

Adams is very optimistic about the potential of Nuscale’s upcoming small modular reactors. He’s very familiar with licensing and siting locations. Yes, they won’t be ready until 2027, but there are a lot of intriguing aspects. The biggest one is that they are designed to be meltdown proof. He has a recent post on economy of scale (republished from 1996) that has an interesting twist for light water reactors:

For example, one assumption explicitly stated in the economy of scale model is that the cost of auxiliary systems does not increase as rapidly as plant capacity. In at least one key area, that assumption is not true for nuclear plants.

Since the reactor core continues to produce heat after the plant is shutdown, and since a larger, more powerful core releases less of its heat to its immediate surroundings because of a smaller surface to volume ratio, it is more difficult to provide decay heat removal for higher capacity cores. It is also manifestly more difficult, time consuming and expensive to prove that the requirements for heat removal will be met under all postulated conditions without damaging the core. For emergency core cooling systems, overall costs, including regulatory burdens, seem to have increased more rapidly than plant capacity.

There are also a lot of intriguing prospects for siting. They will fit very nicely at existing coal plant sites. Coal plant sites are not likely to have gas pipelines and additional pipelines are being blocked. There should also be a lot more electricity demand coming with electric cars and gas heating being exchanged for heat pumps and such. One fascinating thing he points out is that nuclear costs have not actually gone up. It’s just that they have to deal with congested grid pricing from wind and solar.

One interesting new design is the Natrium from Terrapower and GE Hitachi. It will have a molten salt buffer between the core and the steam turbines. This will allow it to spool electricity generation up and down fast to deal with intermittent wind. Yes, nuclear power is so good it will enable the blight of wind turbines and stick us with them forever.

Adams sees a need for cutting CO2 emissions and says he thinks the best way to do it is with a carbon tax. He thinks this will help make prices more predictable and make planning easier for energy companies. He criticizes wind farm tax credits being the same for all locations, even where there’s already congestion. He credits Daniel Yergin’s book, The Prize, with showing how important it is to keep energy supply and demand balanced.

I’ve included a minute guide to help those interested to check out various parts without having to go through the whole thing, but it’s all worth listening to.

Minute Guide

4:00 to 5:00 – Why he prefers term ‘atomic’ to ‘nuclear’

7:00 to 14:00 – AP1000

13:00 to 15:00 – Natural gas availability

15:00 to 25:00 – Nuscale

25:00 to 29:00 – General Electric boiling water reactors

29:00 to 32:00 – Westinghouse

33:00 to 37:00 – Oklo

37:00 to 45:00 – Terrestrial Energy, Thoricon — molten salt reactors

45:00 to 46:00 – Nuclear powered ships

46:00 to 50:00 – Advanced reactor projects

50:00 to 1:00:00 – Prospects for nuclear in US

1:01:00 to 1:02:00 – Natrium with molten salt buffer

1:03:00 to 1:04:00 – Regulation and policy

1:04:00 to 1:07:00 – New reactors and sites

1:07:00 to 1:08:00 – Rod is now a venture capitalist

1:08:00 to 1:10:00 – Existing fleet

1:10:00 to 1:13:00 – Congested pricing due to wind

1:13:00 to 1:17:00 – Getting nuclear to work

1:17:00 to 1:23:00 – Navy, Rickover

1:24:00 to 1:26:00 – Waste

1:27:00 to 1:29:00 – Jimmy Carter

1:29:00 to 1:31:00 – Waste issue as strategy

1:31:00 to 1:35:00 – Rod’s motivation

1:34:00 to 1:40:00 – Oppostion to nuclear

1:41:00 to 1:44:00 – Books

1:45:00 to 1:49:00 – Concluding optimism

Interesting Points

56:00 – Nuclear plant costs have not increased

58:00, 1:13:00 – Carbon price

1:04:00 – 2027 should be interesting year

1:20:00 – Navy expertice should be declassified and utilized

1:38:00 – Coal interests fought against nuclear

1:43:00 – Praise for Daniel Yergin’s The Prize

21 Comments

  1. Mike,

    Just so that you know, I’m not ignoring your post — I’m just waiting for the free time to watch the video properly before I respond.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. To be perfectly honest, the only part of nuclear energy that I have been involved with and which still interests me is geological waste disposal. The well documented claim is that, for a well located deep waste site, only the geological surroundings are necessary to isolate the waste from the biosphere. Other, man-made barriers are superfluous. The validity of this claim has been repeatedly shown by an examination of natural nuclear reactors such as Oklo, mentioned in the video. I have not been there, but I have been shown another location within the West Bank, studied by the Israelis. These locations produced dangerous products that remained on-site for tens or hundreds of millions of years.

    In the 1970s I worked for a branch of the Saskatchewan Geological Survey and was tasked with evaluating the risk of groundwater flooding of deep potash mines in the Province (one mine had already suffered a disastrous flood). What was clear was that the potash-bearing salt beds were overlain by a series of other salt beds, separated by limestones with their porosities entirely filled by salt. Locally, the overlying salt beds had been dissolved by circulating ground waters, and any potash mine in those areas was at risk of flooding. Where the salt beds had been removed, so had the salt that plugged the limestone porosity. Now the salt beds could be located seismically, thus mine safety could be determined remotely.

    So, what has all this to do with nuclear waste disposal. Well geological waste disposal in Canada required the site to have a raft of requirements. Disposal needed to be at sites with extremely low risk of being in contact with migrating groundwater’s and the waste had to be retrievable after several decades. Deep beds of salt met the first requirement par excellence, but cavities in deep salt beds close up, violating the second requirement. (Going down a potash mine is a weird experience – after a new opening had been cut, the walls start to come in at you. After half an hour, there is a loud crack and part of the new walls have each moved 6 inches towards you. Old workings are inaccessible, having completely closed in). What I realised was the salt-plugged limestones between salt beds would not suffer this closure problem, but would not be accessible to groundwater penetration. Strength testing cores of these limestones demonstrated their extraordinary strength characteristics. Furthermore suitable sites could be located seismically.
    So I wrote it all up, so what happened? NIMBY happened. My work was embargoed and buried, never to see the light of day. It was argued that Saskatchewan didn’t have nuclear power, and their was no appetite for receiving Ontario waste. But Ontario has its own salt beds, which had been rejected as sites because of the accessibility problem.

    Only a very small part of NIMBYism it’s true, but to me an inexplicable one.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Adams sees a need to cut CO2 emissions”. A simple statement but one which underlies his entire philosophy on nuclear power I would imagine. How does he see a need? Does he have a unique glimpse into the heart of nature to see in detail all the harms which every mole of accumulating CO2 in the atmosphere will do to our world? Does he know, for sure, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the source of all this ‘extra’ CO2 is anthropogenic? I’m guessing not. Nobody knows. The Science, we are told, is undeniable, but it’s not irrefutable, it’s error prone, model-driven, data poor, built on less than solid theoretical foundations and very much bought and paid for by the establishment who have a vested interest in transitioning away from fossil fuels. So pardon me if I still remain sceptical, especially when the ‘science’ used to justify the transition to supposedly zero carbon energy production is as easy to find huge holes in as this:

    https://www.carbonbrief.org/mapped-how-climate-change-affects-extreme-weather-around-the-world

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  4. Alan,

    Thanks for that. It’s pretty interesting. In the interview, Adams is actually talking about a small startup company called Oklo of which he’s a big fan. It’s planning to make small one to two megawatt reactors for remote locations. I didn’t realize the name referred to a naturally occurring nuclear reactor. They’re obviously trying to make nuclear power seem more naturally appealing. They have a picture of their first one which looks like it’s housed in a ’70’s style A-frame

    https://news.mit.edu/2020/oklo-nuclear-energy-1113

    Rod Adams and Michael Shellenberger are both against of burying the waste. There is a small amount of it in dry cask storage that is easily monitored and is fine where it is. Since only 5% of the fuel in the rods is used up, it may later be used in future designs or reprocessed.

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  5. Jaime,

    There’s a lot of reasons besides cutting CO2 for liking nuclear power. Overall it has the smallest environmental footprint, no air pollution and the best safety record of any electricity source. The waste is one of its best features — a tiny amount that is completely contained (the only such waste that is) and it may be a future fuel resource.

    I find the case for the increase in CO2 being anthropogenic to be compelling, although I will change my mind if the Keeling curve takes an abrupt U-turn and heads South. I don’t know whether it’s a big problem, but I do think it will increase temperatures for better or worse. This is a rather abrupt increase in concentration, especially when compared with geologic time.

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  6. It occurred to me while writing my 8.45am post, that I did have another story to tell that might be of interest. I had a colleague at UEA who taught a module upon Energy (except on Fossil Fuels which was my domain). This had a field trip associated with it. One year this was held in Normandy and Brittany and I went along as a driver and supernumerary. On that trip we visited a French nuclear power station which was off line undergoing turbine refurbishment. At the end of each day the group (students, leader and supernumeraries) had a session where we reviewed the day. When it came to considering the power station visit, the students were full of praise. But I demurred. During our visit we had to pick our way between discarded tools (mainly wrenches) which I thought was somewhat dangerous. I explained that, while this did not directly reveal any laxity of safety issues relating to the reactor (which we were not allowed anywhere near (quite rightly)), I was concerned that the lack of care on the turbine floor might indicate a lack of a safety culture in the entire plant. Those guiding us through the visit were at great pains to emphasise their safety culture. Only many years later did it occur to me that the turbine replacement was probably contracted out to a different company, but still safety was deemed paramount.

    Oh happy days…

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  7. Mike, I don’t have anything against nuclear power if it can be demonstrated to be superior, both economically and environmentally, to fossil fuels and the transition can be managed sensibly. But I baulk at the idea that it should be sold to the world as a panacea for climate change. This thread is not one where we should get into a detailed debate about whether the rise in CO2 is geologically or even historically unprecedented, whether it is primarily due to fossil fuel burning and indeed, if the rise in global temperatures is caused by that rise in CO2 and whether or not the modern increase in globally averaged surface temperature is deemed to be ‘dangerous’ or whether it will soon become ‘dangerous’. These are all questions which in my opinion have not been adequately resolved.

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  8. My mistake over Oklo clearly shows I haven’t viewed the video! Oh dear.

    Oklo is the site of an uranium mine in Gabon where geochemical studies reveal the presence of nucleotides (or their daughter products) indicating that a nuclear reaction had taken place and that these materials had not migrated away from the site in hundreds of millions of years. Natural reactors haven’t been possible for this length of time, younger sites requiring the presence of heavy water.

    What a fantastic name for a company trying to introduce a new type of nuclear power, and what a beautiful a-frame building in which to house the reactors. Who would suppose those buildings could house anything as “scary” as a nuclear reactor.

    I sorry prominent people are against burial of nuclear waste. I’m definitely for it and on two main grounds. First it removes dangerous threats from the hands of terrorists; and second, it removes long lived nucleotides from the surface, some damaging for hundreds of years (well beyond the time we can predict human conditions). One of the more curious aspects was a proposal to foster a religious caste devoted to protecting access to geological disposal sites; the protection lasting long after knowledge of nuclear science had been lost by mankind, but the danger of access hadn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Alan,

    I still think nuclear waste is a non-problem, but one of the more interesting proposals for disposal of it is to bury it under the ocean floor with gravity torpedoes — basically a length of pipe with fins that will bury itself on the ocean floor like a bunker buster bomb. Physicist Luis Alvarez proposed this in his autobiography. Willis Eschenbach also wrote a post about this at WUWT:

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/05/06/a-modest-proposal-for-nuclear-waste-disposal/

    Also, Richard Muller had an interesting chapter in his book, Physics for Future Presidents. He makes the case that nuclear terrorism is impractical — even for a dirty bomb. Fossil fuels make better bombs as demonstrated at the World Trade Center.

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  10. Jaime,

    I actually think nuclear power is a panacea. It’s the only thing in energy that is similar to Moore’s Law in computing. Renewable energy enthusiasts like to gush about how solar panels and batteries are following a new Moore’s Law. They are actually more comparable to fancy abacuses and slide rules. Nuclear power concentrates energy like microchips concentrate data:

    Liked by 1 person

  11. That’s a really key point Mike. Moore’s Law has been amazing, proven blessing. And it’s created envy in other areas, leading to utterly ridiculous analogising about ‘renewables’.

    Nuclear power: is that proven blessing? It’s been around longer than Moore’s Law but around the same time as the miniturisation, from the enormous valves of Colossus down, that Gordon Moore came along to describe.

    Being thick, I’d not seen the possible parallel.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Mike “ I still think nuclear waste is a non-problem”. Your meaning is unclear. Maybe you believe we have developed the technologies to encase high-level waste in a series of barriers that solve the problem, in which case I wholeheartedly agree with you with the exception of countering NIMBYism. Alternatively, you are satisfied that human manufactured barriers are sufficient and geological burial is unnecessary, in which case I profoundly disagree. Some waste materials have long half lives (up to millions of years). One of these is an iodine isotope which if absorbed by humans gets concentrated in our thyroids. This waste needs to isolated for these long periods of time. Only geological storage will suffice.

    As to bombing the ocean, this involves targeting ocean trenches where subduction of the oceanic plate beneath the adjacent continental plate buries the waste. Unfortunately this rather violates the international Law of the Sea, and so is not available to signatories.

    I disagree with Muller’s view that waste would not be used by terrorists. Radiation evokes heightened fears. Imagine the public’s reaction if one of the planes involved in the Trade Center atrocity had been carrying nuclear material.

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  13. As I understand it, the USA has its own peculiar set of problems regarding nuclear waste management, due in no small part to the legislative initiatives taken by Jimmy Carter. In particular, the ban on commercial reprocessing and recycling of plutonium (resulting in the withdrawal of funding for the Barnwell plant and the discouragement of future such developments) means that any underground disposal of waste would be immensely inefficient and wasteful (only a tiny fraction of the unprocessed waste actually requires incarceration for environmental purposes). It’s because the USA went its own way in not reprocessing (cf. the rest of the world) that the problem takes its particular form over there. That said, as the podcast makes clear, the problem is overstated by the environmental lobbyists, notwithstanding the lack of an approved federal underground repository.

    As an aside, it is interesting to reflect upon the reasons given at the time for the ban on commercial reprocessing in the USA. I believe this was a gesture made by Carter to the rest of the world to discourage the development of an industry that might give terrorists access to weapons grade plutonium. There were, however, two problems with this gesture. Firstly, the plutonium produced by commercial reactors is heavily contaminated with plutonium-240, which renders the material unsuitable for the construction of a nuclear device. Secondly, no one in the world took a blind bit of notice, and so America was left holding on to a moral high ground, ‘surrounded’ by nuclear waste that is good for fuelling nothing other than opposition to nuclear power investment.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Alan, It looks to me like there’s plenty of room on site for dry cask containers or even more pools. With a nuclear renaissance likely coming, it’s not clear how it will play out. Burying the spent fuel looks like a hasty decision when it’s not still clear whether we might want to reprocess or use it in new designs. It seems most likely that all these options can only become better understood — even burial.

    As for Thyroid cancer, according to Michael Shellenberger, it’s one of the most treatable cancers with a survival fatality rate on the order of 1%. After Chernobyl, where fragments of the graphite moderator were strewn on the grounds and roofs, there is expected to only be 160 deaths from thyroid cancer. BTW one thing that’s always amazed me and gotten little attention is that Chernobyl had three other reactors that they somehow managed to keep running and generating electricity for a decade.

    As for million (or thousands or even hundreds of) year half lives, I kind of hope humanity will move on with space travel, nanotechnology and such making dealing with tiny amounts of nuclear waste a trivial matter. I really hate the word “sustainability” where we all live static spartan lives so that, … our great grandchildren can all live static spartan lives as well.

    I put the gravity torpedoes out more for amusement than anything else.

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  15. Several commenters wondered why “Nuclear waste is a non problem.” Read “Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste” in December 2005 Scientific American (sadly lately, neither scientific nor American). Then read “Plentiful Energy” by Charles E. Till and Yoon Il Chang from Amazon. Dr. Chang gave me permission to post a PDF at http://vandyke.mynetgear.com/Plentiful_Energy_with_Cover.pdf.

    The stuff we call “waste” is actually valuable 5%-used fuel. The only way to consume the 95% unused fuel is with a fast-neutron reactor, such as GE PRISM or S-PRISM, based upon the Argonne IFR design. Within the 5% of “waste” that is fission products, caesium and strontium are the only fission products that need 300 year (not 300,000 year) custody. They produce 99.4% of radiotoxicity, but constitute only 9.26% of the mass. Europium needs 100 year custody. It produces 0.44% of radiotoxicity and 0.5% of mass. Half the rest is innocuous before thirty years, and the rest isn’t even radioactive. This includes rhodium and palladium, which together have a value of $200,000 per tonne of spent fuel.

    Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories have developed a pyroelectric refining process that is more effective than the giant solvent refining plants used by England, France, Japan, and Russia, and much less expensive. It’s basically the same process as used to refine aluminum: electrolysis in molten salt. Reprocessing using that method would add 0.09 cents per kWh to the cost of electricity. Utilities already paid 0.1 cents per kWh into the Nuclear Waste Disposal Fund for decades. It now stands at $42 billion. It’s held in abeyance now because utilities weren’t getting the promised result: DOE has refused to take custody of spent fuel.

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Van, thanks for that. You bring up the interesting point that the more radioactive a substance is, the shorter its halflife will generally be. That link is awfully technical, but the points you’ve highlighted are very interesting.

    Like

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