A discussion about the risks and benefits of using nuclear energy.
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Bill Gates says that if you want to be serious about our climate emergency, you got to get serious about nuclear energy.
Because right now nuclear generates an absolute enormous amount of the zero carbon electricity worldwide. And we know you know to decarbonise the energy system, to fight climate change right, we need to reduce carbon emissions to zero. And right now in the US, I believe nuclear actually generates about half of our zero-carbon electricity nationwide. And a big risk for us in the US is that there are a lot of old nuclear plants, and they are about to go offline soon. And just the way cost had to come out, they are likely to be replaced by natural gas. They don't get replaced by renewables, which are also zero carbon, they get replaced by natural gas which is a fossil fuel and emits methane and CO2.
Okay, well, before we get into all of the history and even all of the issues in the way of a nuclear future, let's just talk about how this works.
Generally, the way nuclear work is you use radiation to generate heat. You use that heat to heat up water. You have these fuel rods. They are submerged in water. They heat up the water by virtues by radiation. The water turns into steam. You use a steam to turn a turbine. And that turbine generates electricity the same way any other turbine generate electricity right. I mean it is just an electromagnetic effect.
And is this why nuclear power plants are always next to bodies of water?
Yes, because they have to cool the water somehow. Basically every way we generate electricity just comes down to turning a turbine somehow. Usually with steam, right? With coal and gas eventually all you're doing is just turning a turbine. With wind, you're using the power of the wind to turn a turbine. With nuclear, you’re turning a turbine. All of them actually except solar, which makes solar really interesting. What’s so interesting about solar to me is it's the only form of electricity generation where you are not turning a turbine. You are exciting the electrons actually in the solar panel, and they're moving into the wire.
We didn’t dig into the question of whether nuclear counts as clean.
If you hear a politician talking about clean energy, they are probably including nuclear in that because they need zero carbon energy. I think critics of nuclear would tell you that because nuclear generates this waste material, it is not clean. You know, because you have nuclear waste at the end of the process, it is not clean in the same way that say solar or wind are clean.
Let's talk about the waste. What is the by-product of this zero carbon form of energy?
Spent fuel rods that emit radiation for hundreds of thousands of years.
Wow! And what do we do with these spent fuel rods?
You know, we were supposed to store them in Nevada.
Why Nevada? What did they do?
Because it's really remote In the US, we put all this thought into it. In Europe, they just bury it really really deep underground in Finland. It's supposedly so deep that it doesn't intersect with the water supplies. I think in the US it remains a live issue. And I think what most nuclear plants do is they just have spent fuel rods on site under protection in containers where the radiation isn't escaping.
I’ve also always heard this ideas about nuclear waste that we should just launched it at the sun. Is that a serious idea?
Okay. I have to be honest with you. I have also always wondered this about nuclear waste. I believe the reasons why not to do it are the first of all launches do fail. It is bad if suddenly we sprinkled a thin dusting of fuel rods across the Atlantic Coast of Florida. The other half of this is like cost matter there too. And nuclear is kind of expensive. It requires some level of subsidy, at least in the US. And it's expensive to launch things.
Okay. Let’s talk more about cost. How expensive is nuclear energy compared to other sources?
Nuclear is more expensive than renewables. Where nuclear is different, and I think why climate people get very excited about nuclear, is because nuclear is a source of what’s called firm power, or firm electricity. And this is arguably why even though it's expensive, it's worth paying for. Because nuclear, you know, generates electricity all the time. Like once you get a nuclear plant going, you're basically running it all the time.
A third impediment here is death.
People get very worried about the safety of nuclear plants. If you have a nuclear incident, there is potentially waste around for a long long time. You know, here’s the thing. Compared to coal or really any part of the fossil fuel system, which we know causes hundreds of thousands of cardiopulmonary injuries a year, heart attacks strokes, cardiac disease, early death, asthma attacks. Nuclear is almost certainly below the public health burden of the fossil fuel system. We just are used to living with the result of the fossil fuel system. We're used to people having heart attacks, right? We're used to people growing up with asthma. You know, while fossil fuel deaths are just something that happen in the background, they are hard to associate with the actual fossil fuel system. You know, someone dies in their late 50s or early 60s dies of a heart attack, and they lived downstream of a coal plant for 20 or 30 years. You know, we don't count that. That’s not front page news, but that is a death in the same way a plane crash death is a death. It's just a whole lot less dramatic.
If you want a generally lower risk system, I understand why people get scared of nuclear. However, that being said, would I live next door to a nuclear plant or a coal plant? Absolutely, no question, nuclear every day of the week because nuclear is basically fine. You know, if I lived next door to a coal plant, I’m taking years off my life, while if I live next door to a nuclear plant, the most likely thing is that nothing ever happens and I have very cheap electricity.