Al Gore’s blind spot on nuclear power

I’ve just started reading a book by William Tucker called ‘Terrestrial Energy‘. It’s really very good, and I’ll write up a full review of it here once I’ve finished it. But the reason for this post is to consider a quote from Al Gore that Tucker cites in the Preface, pages ix — x. It comes from his testimony, in March 2007, to the US Senate. Gore says the following, when asked about the possible role of nuclear power in combating global warming:

I think it’s likely to be a small part of it. I don’t think it will be a big part of the solution, Senator… I’m assuming that we will somehow find an answer to the problem of long-term storage of waste… I’m assuming that we will find an answer to the problem of errors by the operators of these reactors…  But the main problem I think is economics. The problem is these things [nuclear reactors] are expensive, they take a long time to build, and at present, they only come in one size—extra-large….

There was quite a bit more said, and you can read the entire transcript of his conversation with Senators Isakson and Alexander, here. Gore added:

So I mean, I’m not a reflexive opponent of nuclear—I just happen to think it’s only going to play a small role….

He repeated much the same line in an interview on CBS television in July 2008, and in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in March 2009, so we can safely assume that the position he states above has not changed over the last few years. For those who follow the news on energy futures, you may recall what Gore said about renewable energy in July 2008:

America must commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and other clean sources within 10 years.

So Gore foresees the need for a transformational change in energy supply in a rapid time-frame, but considers that nuclear power is likely to have little or no role in this second industrial revolution. I will leave the matter of whether 100% renewables by 2020, or indeed any other time-frame, is realistic. Suffice to say that regular readers of this blog know that I have concluded that such a target is extraordinarily implausible, from many technical, logistical and socioeconomic standpoints. So what about Al Gore’s view on nuclear power prospects — are these also being overrated by its proponents?

Tucker (pg x — xi) has the following to say in response to Gore’s cited testimony:

Saying that nuclear reactors only come in “one size — extra large” is woefully uninformed. Reactors can come in any size. Experimental reactors in laboratories and universities can generate 1 or 2 megawatts (A megawatt — MW — is the standard unit of commercial electricity, able to power about 1,000 homes.) Submarine reactors in the Nuclear Navy generate between 20 and 50 MW, and battleships run on 70 to 100 MW. When Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the Nuclear Navy, “beached” one of his submarine reactors at Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1957 to produce the first commercial nuclear plant, it generated 60 MW — about 1/25th the size of today’s.

Utility reactors grew to 300 and 500 MW and beyond, with the largest now reaching 1,500 MW — what Gore calls “extra large”. This is because giant generators are the cheapest way to produce electricity. Coal plants are built to the same size, but this isn’t the only way reactors can be built. The Russians are now powering Siberian villages with 80 MW reactors floated in on barges. China and Japan are building modular reactors of 150 MW to power small communities. There isn’t any reason reactors can’t be built to the neighborhood level, combined with hydrogren production or water desalinization. If we ever colonize the moon, it will probably be with transportable nuclear reactors.

The real problem is public fear of all things nuclear. In truth, nuclear power still terrifies people. It seems unnatural and diabolic, a bastard technology conjured up by guilt-ridden scientists trying to exonerate themselves for inventing the atomic bomb. For many people — even those most concerned about global warming — nuclear remains the embodiment of evil, the symbol of all that is wrong with the modern world

[Yet]… Nuclear energy is the source of the earth’s natural heat, the incredible furnance that heats the earth’s interior to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun, spitting out volcanoes and lava flows, floating the planet’s continents like giant barges on its molten core. The source of this energy is nuclear power, the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century. While we have always looked to the sun for our energy, the unlocking of nuclear power has left us with an alternative — terrestrial energy. There is nothing sinful or reprehensible about using this energy. In fact, it has come just in time to help us deal with what may be our twin crises — climate change and the increasing scarcity of world oil.

I would agree completely with Tucker — Al is poorly informed on this matter and I can only conclude has failed to grasp the full realities of our energy challenge.

Look at Gore’s Senate testimony again. We have the answer to the problem of long-term storage of waste. They’re called fast spectrum  and molten salt reactors, which burn up all of the actinides. We have the answer to the problems of errors by operators. It’s called ‘inherent’ or ‘passive’ safety sytems, which are reliant on the imutable laws of physics. One size, extra large? Nonsense. Reactors now come in all different sizes, and design schematics for the Integral Fast Reactor‘s commercial exemplar, the S-PRISM by General Electric Hitachi, are set up in blocks containing multiple standardised, modular loops of 380 MW each (by the way, if you are at all interested in the technical aspects of the IFR, that linked paper by Allen Dubberly is a must read). Standardisation, modularity, additivity, passive safetly, on-site processing of self-protecting fuels — they’re all game-changers for the economics of the nuclear power industry (and a carbon price that puts a real environmental cost on coal would also be useful).

So I’m extremely disappointed to find that a man like Gore, who has taken so much time and effort to listen to scientists on the problem of climate change and has been in the position to receiving the top-level advice and expert briefings for decades, seems to have taken no time to try to understand developments in nuclear power, nor to listen to the world experts at his doorstep in the Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories. Why the bipolarity of effort? I don’t know, but to me, it’s Gore’s own Inconvenient Truth. Yet I’m hopeful that it is also something that can be changed, given that he (and many like him) are surely people who are willing to look at complex problems logically, are able to cast aside deep-seated preconceptions, and are willing to face up to really big, confronting challenges.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

82 replies on “Al Gore’s blind spot on nuclear power”

Gore has undermined his credibility by claiming that offsets compensate for his lavish lifestyle. His claim that the US could be carbon free by 2020 was discussed at length on The Oil Drum.

I don’t think the public is yet ready to accept widely distributed small nuclear plant. Despite articles like the above pointing out the limits of renewable energy in their heart of hearts the public wants to believe it will fully replace coal. In Australia I think the key to nuclear acceptance is to co-locate a large Gen III reactor with a desal in a locality way out of town.

In the mean time the public may start to notice how inefficient the current bandaid solutions are. For example I see that a direct electrical connector is being built between Adelaide’s Torrens Island power station and the Pt Stanvac desal. Problem One is that it burns more fossil fuel. Problem Two it that it fails to exploit energy savings from co-location of desal and thermal plant. Problem Three is that the Cooper and Otway gas basins on which TI draws are both in their twilight years. The blinkers can only stay on for so long.


It seems that the criticism of Gore’s position is that he is not an avid proponent of nuclear power, he certainly is not opposed to nuclear, he is surely stating some obvious realities:

1) it has been financially risky to start building large nuclear plants in comparison with small gas fired power or wind farms.

2)if it is feasible to build small nuclear why have not any utilities that are prepared to build small natural gas power also building small nuclear?

3) nuclear plants do take a long time to build, things can be done to reduce this time but for now it still looks like 10years or more.

4)Gore’s 10 year plan may be overly ambitious, but so far wind energy growth is about twice the DOE’a 20% by 2030 target and it is more likely at this point in time that wind will contribute more new electricity by 2020 than nuclear. That’s not an argument AGAINST nuclear, but explains why he is FOR wind power, a smart grid etc.

It’s up to proponents of nuclear to have the changes made. Using the excuse that the public is against nuclear doesn’t wash when the reality is the nuclear industry in the US destroyed itself in the 1970’s with cost overruns. Were any half completed nuclear plants canceled because of anti-nuclear opposition or by utilities being bankrupted by costs?

Rather than say “Gore’s Blind Spot on nuclear power” the title should be “Why isn’t Gore a nuclear proponent?” I think the answer the same as “Why isn’t Gore a CCS proponent?” his thinking seems to be that coal has to be replaced in less than 10years or at least the dismantling of coal industry has to begun within 10 years. By filling any new demand for electricity by wind and conservation now (not in 10years time) this will help to cancel most of the 100 new coal plants still in planning stages.


No, I think you are being way too kind. He is claiming (through ignorance of the facts, I presume) that answers which actually do exist, don’t exist.

Further, Gore is not talking about cancelling 100 new coal plants in planning. He is talking about doing this AND shutting the >600 coal plants and 100s of gas plants that already exist. You’ll need far more than just wind and conservation to do that. Hence my argument that he’s not rationally confronting the challenge.

“so far wind energy growth is about twice the DOE’a 20% by 2030 target” — as you would fully expect — the problems of large-scale renewable build-out accumulate as higher % come online and backup gas/coal is ‘used up’ and the best sites (also close to grid) are taken.

If he really wants to be ambitious yet realistic, it should be along the lines of a massive expansion demonstration (next 5 years) and then build-out (following 5 years) of IFR and LFTR, immediate roll out of Gen III+ plans, big investment in grid infrastructure alongside large wind rollouts, serious demonstration of CSP and rollout, all underpinned by a rising carbon price and direct government investment as utility owners. His 100% plan misses too many key elements to be even slightly credible.



You asked a good question:

2)if it is feasible to build small nuclear why have not any utilities that are prepared to build small natural gas power also building small nuclear?

Utilities buy power plants, they do not develop the technology or the manufacturing capacity for all of the components.

The vendors that were invited into the original nuclear club in the 1940s – mainly Westinghouse and GE but also Babcock and Wilcox and Combustion Engineering – were already very large companies with an historical focus on building ever larger power plants. They were full of engineers who had been taught very simple lessons in economics with one main theme – the economy of scale.

There are some very serious engineers and businessmen who have recognized that economies of scale do not necessarily require enormous single units; scale economies can be achieved with large volumes of smaller units.

NuScale, Hyperion, Adams Engines, Toshiba and several other vendors that are still in the quiet phase are working diligently towards offering utilities plants that are ready to build with tested technology and a developed supply chain of vendors for all necessary components.

Please understand – these plants are much smaller than the traditional central station power plants, but they are not something that will show up in individual backyards. They will generate enough power to supply the electricity needs for tens of thousands of people (10 MW, for example, is enough for 10,000 people and that is smaller than most of the proposed plants) and will be well protected, secure locations producing a valuable product.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast


Rod, I just listened to your podcast this week, which was a great interview of you by a researcher for an upcoming documentary film on nuclear power. I was hoping it might be a realistic and factual account of nuclear energy, and counter the misinformation and prejudice that is out there. Is that your sense of where that was going?

I think Gore’s film was a necessary and critical consciousness raising on climate change that came not a moment too soon. Listening to the interview, I thought a similar thing needs to happen with nukes, as a second act to An Inconvenient Truth. Perhaps, An Inconvenient Solution. Likewise, it can’t come too soon.


Nuclear energy’s attribute of being a a carbon-free source that is available in extra-large sizes is no bad thing, except from the point of view of a natural gas rentier whose natural gas income dominates his thinking. But that domination can happen when virtually the only people he listens to are other natural gas rent-takers.

A Snippet of Nuclear History, from the Pro Nuclear Democrats blog, gives some numbers that shed some light on this:

Since 1995, the [American] nuclear industry has added one reactor and a host of upgrades accounting for a 133 billion kilowatthours increase in output, a 16% improvement. During that same period, wind power increased from 3.2 billion kilowatthours to 32.1, a 10x increase, yet this is less than a quarter of the baseload quality output improvement that nuclear made without adding a single new plant.

Emphasis mine. An additional 0.133 petawatt-hours of nuclear-generated electricity every year means American natural gas suppliers who otherwise would have supplied fuel with which combustion turbines would have produced that electricity now are losing an additional $4 billion a year* to the nuclear competition, on top of the annual $20 billion they were losing in 1995.

Each of those billions includes between $0.125 billion and $0.167 billion for government. If, rather than complementing natural gas combustion turbine power, wind power were as antagonistic to it as nuclear power is, even then, it still would be less than a quarter as offensive to current and — like Gore — former civil servants.

Nuclear energy offends exactly those people, and only those people, to whom any true CO2 emission reducer would be — however minutely — a revenue reducer for their paymaster. And not all of them, of course.

(How fire can be domesticated)

* Based on 45 percent conversion of natural gas mmBTUs that cost $4 each.


Quite. I’d done similar calculations a while back.

The increase in delivered energy from worldwide nuclear power plants increased from 1905 TWh electricity in 1990 to 2559 TWh in 2002 [I need to update this calculation with later figures — these figures are from the book “The Solar Fraud”, previously reviewed on this site]. In 2006, wind produced 125 TWh globally. So the growth alone in nuclear power between 1990 and 2002, of 654 TWh, is over 5 times the total delivered power by wind in 2006 (yes, I know wind power keeps growing and is higher in 2008).

My point is, wind and other renewables are only being deployed faster on a relative basis — more electrons are being added in nuclear power than they are in wind — a lot more. Renewables are coming of a low base and so SHOULD be growing fast. It’s great that they’re taking off. But it’s disingenuous in the extreme to compare their growth rate to nuclear power’s and claim that their march is therefore unstoppable and that nuclear is somehow declining by comparison.

Many people are concerned that nuclear has received the lion’s share of government funds. In the US (for which I have figures), Federal DOE energy subsidies for solar+wind amounted to $0.026/kWh of electricity generated. Nuclear power received $0.00038/kWh of electricity generated. That is, ‘technosolar’ got 68 times more funds per unit generation than nuclear. Of course this is only direct subsidy — it does not include tax credits, subsidies by power companies that must maintain spinning reserve for times when wind is weak, or subsidies by customers who regularly pay a few cents per kWh for Green Power. Wind in the US has also received a production credit (subtracted from taxes, not income) of 1.8 c/kWh.

In the UK, between 1990-2005, total government allocations to renewables R&D (including research council projects but leaving out fuel cells & embedded generation) was about £180m while nuclear fission & fusion got about £370m- more than double.

My numbers quoted for the US were subsidies for different generation sources per kWh. Using the 2004 UK electricity figures, non-hydro renewables produced 13.6 TWh of electricity and nuclear produced 73.7 TWh. Taking these as average figures over the 1990-2005 period of 16 years, that amounts to £0.00083/kWh for renewables and £0.000314/kWh for nuclear — so on that basis, renewables gets 2.6 times more funds than nuclear. This is actually a little unfair on nuclear, as over the period it has produced a lot more energy, on average, than non-hydro renewables, which were close to nothing in 1990 (whereas nuclear was 58 TWh).


By end of 2008( a long time ago for wind energy) the annual world wind power production would be 350TWh, but will probably take another 12 months( to June 2010) to reach 654 TWh. Would 10GW new nuclear have been added world wide in 2008?
Comparing wind potential in 2006 is equivalent to comparing nuclear industry in 1956, very small but very promising, solar in 2009 is just approaching that level.
You are correct that solar and wind are receiving more government funding than nuclear, more should be spent on nuclear, but it’s not happening yet.It’s even more unfair for hydro that’s been producing cheap clean power for 100 years.


I gave a link to two articles using non-wind turbine methods, but we cannot make plans on any new technology until its demonstrated to work and to scale.
I can see big problems in harvesting high altitude wind ( aircraft hazards) and the need for wide separation to allow for changes in wind direction.More practical is increasing turbine tower heights from present 50m in US to 100-150m range. Above this start to need too much steel for towers, perhaps carbon fiber or much lighter generators.Better still choosing locations with high wind, such as Labrador.


That’s an impressive increase in electricity production for over 14 years, with wind things are moving so fast, progress is measured in months not decades, as an example, in the last 12 months, 9.9GW of wind capacity was added, increasing electricity production by 3.3GW,approx 28.9 Billion kWh on a yearly basis. Both wind and solar energy growth is about 40-50% per year, so it’s not fully captured in EIA data for 2008, and certainly not for 2007 data.

The real growth in wind energy is in the manufacturing infrastructure that underpins a capacity to expand in the future. In contrast growth in nuclear power output in the US has been 1% per year over the last 14 years, hopefully there is still the manufacturing infrastructure and skilled labor to be able to increase this substantially in the near future. A lot of the people involved in the growth of the 1970’s, when I worked in Oak Ridge, were getting close to retirement. Then again a lot of the trades people in the 1970’s nuclear industry were not too well trained, as Browns Ferry and other incidents show. This is also going to be a problem of the wind industry, I would expect to see a few spectacular turbine failures, but not as much media coverage, and it’s hard to imagine that one tradesman with a candle can do a $billion worth of damage.
Here’s hoping for a rapid increase in nuclear capacity for when the 2010-2020 wind turbines need to be replaced. I would expect by then nuclear will be cheaper than wind in the US and other issues resolved.

Although solar energy is much smaller than wind or nuclear today solar is probably doing to be the competitor for nuclear and wind in 25 years because of the advantage of PV in decentralization and the advantage of CSP for peak power. The energy density of solar (kW/m^2) is better than wind in most locations, and 10-30% can be captured compared to wind turbines only capturing 3% of wind energy.

It’s unfortunate that we cannot wait 25 years before replacing coal and oil.


Neil, an increase in capacity at 1% per year, as you state, means, in 14 years, an increase in 14%. And that with only adding about 2 reactors to the whole mix. The “Industry” is increasing component manufacturing on a world basis since the industry is a planetary one, not restricted to one country or region, is growing *exponentially*. Orders are coming in and new builds are being scheduled. True, not as much in the U.S. but overall, dozens of new 1,000 MW plus reactors are going to be started, adding to the already 12 or so under construction.

I only bring this up because we are really at the very beginning of this new nuclear renaissance. It is being lead by the Chinese, of course, who, by the 2030 date you noted above, should of added 130 new plants by this time. They *appear* to be right on schedule. Much of the ‘worry’ over new builds: training, components, scheduling, costs, etc etc are basically going through a shakedown by the Chinese. We can start observing now with he two new AP1000s under constructing there now, and the about 15 more due to start in the next 12 months or so.

It will be fascinating to watch, and an example from both the U.S. and Australia on how do it…or not, depending on how it develops.



I understand that the 1% growth in US is just due to reactor upgrades.
If you look at the World Nuclear Association site,
they list 372GW operating capacity(approx 335GWa), 39.9GW under construction and another 25GW in advanced planning for completion by 2015.
If all of those in advanced planning are completed by 2015 will have about 11GW/year new capacity or 10GWa per year.This is almost the same as the amount of wind 30GWcapacity(10GWa) that was added in 2008, but a lot more wind should be added in future years. For example the UK had 3.3GW wind capacity by the end of 2008, but has 2.8GW under construction and 8GW approved by planning.The US has built or under construction 6GW in first 3 months of 2009(competed 8.5GW in 2008)

China has the most ambitious nuclear program with 12.6GW nuclear under construction and 15GW in advanced planning to be completed by 2015.For the next 4 years 9GW is planned for completion for an average of 2.2 GW new nuclear per year.
In comparison, China has 100GW hydro capacity under construction, it competed 6GW wind capacity last year( 2GWa)and has plans to add an average of 10GW wind capacity(3.3GWa) per year.

If you look at longer term plans for nuclear (to 2030) plans are for 115GW to be competed after 2015 and estimates are that 100 to 370 GW additional could be built from 2009 to 2030. It’s hard to predict where wind or solar will be in 6 years let alone by 2030, but world wide should be adding >>30GWa new capacity per year.

Clearly new world nuclear power presently planned for 2030, will not be enough to replace just the US and China’s present coal fired power, however, new nuclear, wind, hydro and solar energy could replace ALL of the worlds present coal fired electricity AND replace most oil consumption using optimistic but achievable growth in all of these non-FF energy resources.

Since nuclear plants are probably going to last twice as long as present wind turbines, although that may change in future, this gives lots of opportunities from 2040 to consider replacing today’s wind turbines with new nuclear, hydro or solar.

I don’t blame Al gore for his nuclear blind spot any more than I blame him for his hydro blind spot, his challenge of 100% electricity non-FF in US by 2020 can only be met by a rapid increase wind and solar, as hydro and nuclear just take too long.


David Walters – “Neil, an increase in capacity at 1% per year, as you state, means, in 14 years, an increase in 14%.”

David and increase at 1% per year means that it 70 years the capacity will double. However most of that nuclear increase will be absorbed by other nuclear plants being decommisioned. The rate of increase in nuclear will have to be greatly increased to both replace old reactors and increase capacity.

Wind is growing at the required rate. 30% increase per year means a doubling time of 70/30 = 2.3 years so if wind keeps increasing at this rate it will experience 4 doublings between now and 2020. We have approx 120GW of wind now so in 2020 wind will be 1920GW. Also to implement this wind we do not need any regulation or oversight. We can install it in any country in the world without any problems.



What evidence do you have that the wind industry can scale up to maintain its current rate of growth? How many factories will have to be built? How many precision gear box makers will have to start training workers? Where will the rare earth metals used in the generators come from?

People who have little experience in the real world of manufacturing see rapid growth rates when markets first develop and mathematically produce wildly optimist numbers based on maintaining that growth rate even when the base gets large. Those predictions NEVER hold true for products whose material inputs cannot also be rapidly reduced. (Microprocessors are a special case if measured by computing power. If measured by surface area of produced chips, the rate of growth is much closer to linear than to exponential.)

By the way, we have a history of that proves that nuclear power can be scaled. At a time when our starting base was very low and the number of trained people was tiny, we built and began operating enough plants to replace oil and some coal in the US power market, achieving a respectable 20% market share with a construction process that was about 80% concentrated in a brief, 15 year period with some small tails that stretched it to about 30 years.

One more thing – when you really want to talk about how much wind power we have, come back and use production figures rather than the deceptive “capacity” figures that the industry spokespeople love so much.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights


Ron Adams – “What evidence do you have that the wind industry can scale up to maintain its current rate of growth? How many factories will have to be built? How many precision gear box makers will have to start training workers? Where will the rare earth metals used in the generators come from?”

Click to access worldwindenergyreport2008_s.pdf

The growth rate in wind does not have to scaled up. It has sustained this level of growth for at least the last 5 years. Precision gearboxes are a thing of the past as most new large wind turbines are variable speed which do not have gearboxes. Also induction generators are just a piece of iron rotating in a winding. Some of them do use rare-earth magnets however there are no supply issues with these as far as I know.

“People who have little experience in the real world of manufacturing see rapid growth rates when markets first develop and mathematically produce wildly optimist numbers based on maintaining that growth rate even when the base gets large.”

That will equally apply to nuclear. Wind has the history of sustained growth. Nuclear had a brief period of very rapid growth in the 70s and 80s that petered out. Now most new nuclear will only be replacing those reactors as they wear out. I agree that people with little experience in the real world of manufacturing produce widely optimistic numbers which is exactly why I have argued with Tom Blees about his rollout schedule for the IFR. My opinion based solely on discussions in this blog (I still have not read the book) is that he is very optimistic if he thinks modular IFRs can be rolled out in 5 years.

Wind on the other hand has demonstrated sustained growth levels with the rate of growth increasing. The rate of growth does not have to increase anymore as 30% per year is fine. If this level of growth was sustained for 10 years then wind would double 4 times. Even if the growth rate dropped to 25% then in 10 years wind would double 3 times instead of 4 which would still be a substantial increase.

“One more thing – when you really want to talk about how much wind power we have, come back and use production figures rather than the deceptive “capacity” figures that the industry spokespeople love so much.”

Fair enough however if we are talking deception what is the capacity factor of a nuclear plant producing nothing for 2 years because of defects? What is the capacity factor of a nuke 2 years behind schedule and twice the cost?

Lets leave the deception part out of it and concentrate on what the figures actually mean. Load following nukes can have capacity factors as low as 50%. Wind in excellent sites like north of me at Geraldton can have CPs as high as 47%. A solar plant in a place like Oslo, also north of me, with an average all year round 10.5 sun hours per day could theoretically have a CP up around 40%. Add collector overbuilding and thermal storage to this and we can increase this.

Finally a point on CPs that solar people have been trying to put over is that solar on average produces power when people need it. A 90% CP nuke or coal plant produces power around the clock however we do not need it round the clock so we try to get people to use extra power in off-peak times just so we can keep the baseload turning over. Solar on the other hand is idle at night when we do not need the power and produces it’s peak power during the day when demand is greatest exactly what is required. So a low CP is not necessarily a bad thing.


You will all be estatic to know that I have ordered the book as my library for some reason seems unable to purchase it.

Mind you I will be donating it to the library once I am finished with it so Mr Blees’s wisdom can be diseminated to the people of Wanneroo.



Do nuclear plants use turbines to generate power? couldn’t both wind and nuclear adapt to use less rare earth elements if they become super scarces.

Barry has made the point of rapid non-linear changes in production for WWII.

Current renewable growth rates represent inappropriate incentives, uncertainty of investment, and policies that seem designed to fail. Hardly surprising given the polictial feedbacks in play. Give investers certainty, plot a path to rapid rise for $100/tCO2. And you will get very different scale of growth.

Regarding workfoce,here was my reply to you last time you asked

” We are in a global recession with falling demand for production and rising unemployment. And CSP uses conventional engineering.

I live in an Australian city were manufacturing is folding year by year. I was once a Mechanical Engineer, Design and Production. I know of many Engineering and Trade skilled people who could be coaxed into it in a flash.

With hundreds of thousands of Tradies, there is capacity to commence deployment in thousands of sites in Australia alone.

(14% of Australia’s 10 million plus workforce have skilled trades).”

Provided with the information on IFR and the scale of the job to be done, I have changed my postion in relation to nuclear power.

I think it will be used, but perhaps not in Australia. We have far less obsticals to achieveing 100% renewable targets, and can do so without the damage to the envrionment that would be caused by mega projects like Three Gourges or The Severn River 15,000 MW tidal option.

Advanced countires like Australian can bring renewables along for the benefit of countires who look unlikely at present to get nuclear power.


Mark – The generators used in traditional power plants, though also connected to turbines, do not use rare earth metals, they use electro-magnets with coils made up of traditional conductors like copper and aluminum. When the generators are not moving, there is generally no need for magnetism. Speed control can be provided by controlling the flow of gases into the turbine, so the generators can be “flashed” once the machine begins to roll.

Though I am only guessing, using a bit of dusty applied electrical knowledge, I suspect that wind generators use rare earth permanent magnet generators because of their wide variations in speed – including not infrequent stops. Having permanent magnets provides a means of applying a counterforce even with rapid changes in wind velocity that prevents overspeed situations.

There may be plenty of trades people and manufacturing capacity in Australia, but much of the labor associated with renewables will have to be done on site in construction and installation. Do you really have a large work force that is willing to spend its hours in remote, sunny sites where there is little water building out dozens of square miles of solar or wind arrays?

Will they be willing to keep going back to clean and maintain the facilities once they are built? If not terribly excited by that kind of work and living conditions, what labor rates will be required to entice them? My hope for the world economy is that it will not remain in a period of recession and desperation for workers for very long; under reasonable economic conditions the types of jobs required for a massive scale of renewable power just do not seem internally rewarding, so they will require some special kinds of incentives.

How much road construction, water pipeline construction and transmission line infrastructure will be required and how useful will those investments be over the long haul? (In other words, will the construction required roads be useful for other purposes after the renewable facilities are built or will they be mainly idle scars on the landscape whose capital investment provides little payoff?)

Sure, a lightly populated nation like Australia can supply its energy needs without resorting to concentrated power sources. How applicable is that experience to the challenge of supplying a reasonable standard of living to densely populated cities like Mumbai, Mexico City, Tokyo, New York, or Lucknow (one of the 41 cities in India with a population exceeding 1 million people).

I am a fission advocate because I have had the opportunity to live right next to a power plant in sealed environment. A tiny amount of volume contained all of the fuel that we needed to propel a 9,000 ton ship around the ocean for about 14 years and we could operate that plant while hundreds of feet underwater. It provided all of the power needed to extract fresh water and even oxygen from the seas around us, allowed us to maintain a comfortable temperature, kept the lights on when we wanted them and supplied the power for cooking and entertainment.

The fuel was sealed up in a container that was completely unaccessible except to people with a very specialized set of tools requiring a large industrial facility to employ (in our case that was a shipyard, but in the case of other distributed atomic fission plants a special factory will be required); I just do not “get” the concerns that people have for distributing similar technologies all around the world.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.


“Do you really have a large work force that is willing to spend its hours in remote, sunny sites where there is little water building out dozens of square miles of solar or wind arrays?”

Sigh. You’re right.

For the same reason, Australia’s never been able to build a significant mining industry or a viable agricultural sector.


Gaz – I am guessing that you are being sarcastic, but if Australia’s population and employment flows are anything like most other industrial nations, the momentum has been for people to move towards cities rather than away from them. Though you do have a viable agricultural and mining industry, my guess is that the overall employment figures for both have been dropping as both become far more mechanized over time.

In contrast, it seems to me that the kind of work required to install large arrays of solar collectors and tall wind turbines in ever more remote areas is less suited for automation and will also require continuous movement and infrastructure development. Mines and farms may be in remote areas, but the work tends to be reasonably stable in location, allowing the development of a local supply infrastructure that can provide basic worker needs and perhaps even a little bit of entertainment and comfort.

Perhaps I am way off base, but that does not seem to be the case for renewable power systems that are dependent on wide area collection of diffuse energy sources.


Yes, I was being sarcastic. My apologies.

Really, I was just trying to point out that proponents of various forms of energy tend to think up a whole raft of reasons why it’s better than the others. Sometimes it’s wise to just back up a little and think these things through, or at least admit we don’t really know with great precision. Whatever it is, it has to be built and it will most likely not be built right near big cities, nor will there be a ready-made, skilled workforce.

IMHO opinion, trying to cast aspersions on wind or solar energy systems will not advance the case for nuclear.

The hurdles for nuclear are convincing Mr and Mrs Average it’s safe, convincing investors it’s commercially viable and convincing governments they won’t be stuck with a big clean-up or waste storage bill.

There may well be good arguments to be used in those regards, but off-the-cuff musing about labour supply in remote locations isn’t going to help, espeically when anyone driving theough the countryside can see wind farms already in operation.

My own off-the-cuff guess is that a local solar and/or wind power industry would be seen by many declining rural communities as a lottery win.

But I wouldn’t really know. If the Greens ever stop siding with the conservatives and agree to an emissions trading scheme, and once we get past the coal industry’s free-ride honeymoon period, then maybe economics will tell us what’s the best way(s) to gernate electricity without turning the planet into a giant rice steamer.



Those wages, however, have to be supportable by the income generated. With concentrated output from mines, that is often a bit less challenging than with diffuse and intermittent output from wind or solar power systems.

The mines handle a lot of material that is diffuse, It is another job to then concentrate it.

Renewable energy is diffuse (day to day) but a concentrated effort can be invested to develop the plant (paid back with a few years of disfuse energy).

Some facilities will provide more ongoing employment than others.


Rod, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

As you’d guessed from Gaz’s reply, the tough lifestyle you described seemed a pretty accurate description for a significant portion of workers in Australia’s regions.

My first job was for a mine close to the centre of the contient, where the accommodation was rough, services were nil except for a Cook, and isolation was extreme. Then every 5, 10, or 20 years they pack up and go.
Now days you can get a lot of fly-in fly-out workers.

Some areas are more permanently settled (Roxby Downs) and housing is comfortable, and services great. This would be the stable sort of development that would be supported by at a large solar facility. Which would also be a boon for services to the region’s farmers.


I have no doubt that if the wages are high enough in relation to other available employment, there will be people who will take the jobs. Those wages, however, have to be supportable by the income generated. With concentrated output from mines, that is often a bit less challenging than with diffuse and intermittent output from wind or solar power systems.

Once solar or wind facilities are constructed, the amount of labor required drops rather sharply. From what I know of the installations here in the states, wind host areas generate some amount of “rent” income, but few, if any, continuing jobs. Wind turbines largely run by themselves until they break down. Solar PV seems to have characteristics that are similar to wind – once the panels are installed, all they need are occasional cleanings and component replacements after they fail.

Solar thermal may be different – operating and maintaining steam plants requires a bit more in the way of day to day labor inputs compared to wind or PV, so there might be a reasonably sized operating work force required to keep the plants running and the mirrors clean and pointed in the right directions.


This image of solar collectors being dotted over millions of km of desert is wrong, unless Australia is to provide energy for the entire world. Just a few sites would be needed each serviced from a small town within 50km distance,similar to mining towns. Generating 0.1kW/m^2(15%efficiency) is 100MW/km^2, x 7500 km^2 within a 50km radius gives a potential 750 GW for 10 hours a day more than X 10 Australia’s power consumption. Solar energy is not low energy density when measured over km distances.
Wind is dispersed over longer distances, but along the south coast, where people prefer to live.


Dear Neil,

I had a bit of a problem following your arithmetic. I think you were suggesting that 7500 km^2 would generate ten times Australia’s daylight (ten hours) power consumption.

A comparable figure comes from the ANU work. They suggest that with 20% efficiency of collection and 20% of surface area covered a solar farm of 138 x 138 km (19,000 km^2) would meet all our needs.

If wind with pumped hydro can meet 50% of our needs and geothermal is good for another 10% (Geodynamics from its little licensed area alone is talking about 500 mW installed by 2016 presumably with high usage) we only need about 40% of our needs to come from CSP, or solar thermal. So we need no more than 10,000 km^2 (ie one contiguous block 100 x 100 km, or 4 of 50 x50 km) of high insolation country (the further north the better) relatively close to the eastern or western seaboards, transmission systems and either a big river or the ocean.

There are only two problems with this scenario. One is the Tasmanian state government who control the area with the best wind and pumped hydro potential. The other is that it leaves no space for high efficiency photovoltaics.

Kind regards,

David Murray


Growth rates in either new capacity or new output are the same.

The DOE_20%wind by 2030 also looked at higher build rates(30-40%wind) and the limitations in scaling. Unlike nuclear a lot of the construction can be performed in separate facilities and assembled in final form on site in a few days. A large number of new component manufacturing facilities have been established in US over last 2-3 years( towers, blades, gearboxes, castings generators). Electric control and distribution( transformers, rectifiers,transmission lines, AC_DC conversion) are used widely in industry.
Steel accounts for 85% of materials and would be 8-10% of US steel capacity, now in a large capacity surplus. Some of the larger turbines don’t have gearboxes, copper use is only 2-3% of US consumption.
They identified two possible capacity constrains fiber glass( 35% of US capacity) and permanent magnets using niobium.Supplies of niobium seem to be more than adequate at today’s prices, but magnet manufacturing capacity is a potential limitation. Just like Zirconium could be a limitation for nuclear reactors, higher prices will stimulate more potential resources being converted to reserves and manufacturing capacity increased.

The growth rate for wind energy in the US in 2007 was 43% and for 2008, 50% so it would not be surprising to see growth rates return to long term world average of 30%. These higher growth rates caused price rises, always a potential problem with any rapid increase. In the 1970-1990 period the US and world nuclear construction rate exceeded these capacity restrains causing a lot of cost overruns, and plants being abandoned or canceled.Ideally the build up should be as fast as possible without causing these types of problems, for wind 45-50% growth per year seems to be too high, for nuclear I would guess that 1970’s rate was too high.

It seems that the world nuclear capacity is completing about 4-6 GW per year(6-8 reactors). To complete 370GW(300-350 new reactors) by 2030 will require 17GWc per year(x3 fold) which would seem possible. In the US it will be difficult for more than 8 to be completed by 2020, but depending upon world demand, a lot more by 2030.

If new wind capacity only increases x3 fold( ie plateau after 2011) it will be adding 100GWc or 30GWa per year( twice expected nuclear 15GWa). The only reason I can see for a break on growth rate of wind occurring after 2011 will be if CSP solar peak power becomes competitive with natural gas peak costs.Under that scenario a lot of planned nuclear and wind would be delayed in US and India but possibly not in China, Canada, USSR and Northern Europe(unless a lot of CSP is built in N Africa).


I think the correct approach to energy planning is to look towards a future date, say 2050, and reverse engineer the mix to meet a range of criteria. These criteria could include 80% less CO2, meeting the needs of desalination and electric transport and a basic household electricity quota for an expanded population. I would also include a natural gas conservation protocol. Unlike studies of this kind by CSIRO I think it should omit unproven technologies like CCS, dry rock geothermal and wavepower. However there should be leeway for unknowns like CSP, thin film PV and Gen IV nuclear.

Here goes a crude attempt; Australia year 2050 average electrical generation 50 GW comprised of intermediate and baseload nuclear averaging 15 GW, coal 5 GW, gas 10 GW (from 30 capacity), wind solar and hydro 20 GW average (from 60 capacity). Note renewables are at an optimistic 40% in this scenario.

Using approximate weightings the average installed capital cost could be around $10 per watt and electricity around 30c a kwh in today’s prices. Whether such figures are politically or physically realistic can be debated. However I doubt that any plausible set of numbers can show future generations having an easy time.


Dear Barry,

Thank you for bringing Mr. Gore’s ideas on nuclear power to our attention.

The only substantive difference between you and Mr. Gore is in your assessments of the full costs of modern nuclear power. The three extended quotations below from the piece in TheNew Atlantis illustrate what I see to be his position.

“I used to represent Oak Ridge where we’re immune to the effects of radiation, so I used to be more enthusiastic about it. I’m more sceptical today for a lot of reasons, AND THE MAIN ONE IS COST. [my emphasis]”

Now, for the eight years I was in the White House, every nuclear weapons proliferation issue was connected to a reactor program. And that’s a problem if the world wanted to make nuclear power the Option A for the whole world. It would make the problem worse. BUT THE MAIN PROBLEM IS, I THINK, ECONOMICS. [my emphasis]”

“Take China, for example. We talked about it earlier. In their five year plan right now, they’re projecting 55 new thousand-megawatt coal-fired generating plants every year [but] only three nuclear plants. NOW THEY DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT PUBLIC OPINION… THEY’RE LOOKING AT THE SAME ECONOMICS OF THE LONG LEAD CONSTRUCTION AND THE COST AND SOME OF THE UNCERTAINTIES.[my emphasis]

Now, there’s a new generation of reactors coming along that has a smaller increment. They may be more reliable and more standardized. We may get a solution to the waste issue.

So I mean, I’m not a reflexive opponent of nuclear – I just happen to think it is only going to play a small role.”

I think that (second last paragraph above) Mr Gore is not blind to the existence and attributes of the new generations of reactors. He believes ( the China example is given) that public nimby and proliferation fears are not the overriding factors in the continued low uptake of old and modern nuclear. The overriding reason is “economics”.

I went back to earlier posts and also tried to find other evidence of costs. It is difficult – as with the growth of renewables the past is a poor guide to the future. We fall back on arguments from first principle.

I believe that the strongest statement we can make about relative costs is that traditional nuclear is not significantly cheaper than (untaxed) coal, and it may be higher. The evidence for this statement is that it has not generally displaced coal.

Fourth generation nuclear will have lower fuel costs than traditional nuclear, but as fuel costs are a trivial part of total costs this is of little interest. The cost reducing effects of standardization are yet to be demonstrated and may not be very high. The number of complete reactors to be assembled is possibly not large enough for learning curve effects to take place and standardized manufacture of components to occur.
By contrast Mr. Gore believes that there is still significant scope for cost reduction in the renewables field.

In summary I think there is enough evidence in Mr Gore’s statements to accept his position at face value. The major difference between renewables and nuclear is cost, and he argues that renewables will have the edge. This is a clearly argued position, not the result of a blind spot.

Kind regards,

David Murray


As I said, it’s a blind spot for Mr Gore, not a direct opposition. He imagines nuclear power will cost too much, but recent estimates consistently show that this is not the case. The most recent one is the MIT 2009 update, which has flaws in its scope, but its supplemental paper on costs is most revealing and shows nuclear, even in the US, to be highly competitive. A good overview of the results of the supplemental report are given at NEI:

The Chinese experience with the AP-1000 buildout will be most revealing, just as the late 90s build of the ABWR in Japan. Most in the industry suspect the Chinese units to come in at a very cost-competitive range.

What of the costs for large-scale renewables — an installed capacity that can supply 20 to 50% of a nation’s or region’s power needs AND displace an equal amount of coal (or non-peaking gas). Truth is, we have NO IDEA, since it’s never been done. That is, the final cost of large-scale renewables is not the unit cost per peak MW installed — that data is quite clear for something like wind (much less so for CSP), and is highly competitive. The final cost involves the cost of generating capacity, transmission, storage and backup. This could be extraordinarily high.

With respect David, this difference between peak installed MW and total system cost of delivered power seems to be your blind spot too.


I would agree with you that nuclear can be low cost, and there may be other reasons why a relatively modest 12GW is under construction and only 15 GW planned for completion by 2015 in China. It’s still a big increase on present nuclear capacity. Clearly coal, hydro must be considered lower cost than nuclear or wind energy or the Chinese want to increase nuclear capacity in a measured way until they have more experience. Wind capacity doubled in 2008, so its hard to imagine that this expansion was not going at maximum, perhaps nuclear was also constrained by supply capacity.

I do not agree with you about the costs of integrating wind, either here in Australia or in US. Even in Europe with a lot less hydro in proportion to energy use, wind integration cost is estimated at $5-7/MWh. Australia and US have both high NG capacity and large hydro capacity. The costs of expanding both are small, and the savings from every kWh generated by wind are large( keeping water and NG for use at peak times). We will need NG and hydro peak capacity with either wind or nuclear.When wind plus nuclear average production approach 40% they will account for 100% off-peak so solar will have a greater advantage because it will contribute 0% to off-peak. Just the same pumped hydro could be expanded beyond today’s 1.2 GW(Australia), the cost being the 25-30% round trip energy loss.


Re: China build rate, I think it’s mostly a risk management exercise right now — keeping their powder dry until they see the economics of the finalised AP1000s current being constructued. They’ve said that if it comes out favourably, they’ll order 100 more, but are obviously not going to commit to those sort of numbers yet. It’s actually quite heartening that they’re constructing 12GW at present, given the lingering uncertainties. In my opinion, the current China build is make or break time for Gen III+.

Re: Wind — lots of estimates, yes, little to no hard data on large-scale (same deal for Gen III+ I know, see above). You are optimistic, Trainer is pessimistic, others somewhere in between. NG infrastructure is cheap, sure, but not THAT cheap — MIT 2009 says $850/kW overnight cost. Bottom line is that nothing substitutes for real-world data, which we’ll definitely be getting in the next few years with wind’s rapid current expansion.

I definitely agree with your thinking about favourable synergies between nuclear, wind, hydro and CSP, and NG peaking and spinning reserve for a decade or two at most until we can shed it or substitute with biogas/syngas. I wish all renewable energy advocates thought positively and constructively about a FULL energy mix like you do!


When talking about the cost of natural gas generating infrastructure nearly all analysts fail to take into account the cost of expanding the natural gas extraction and distribution infrastructure.

Increases in the demand for natural gas also have the natural result of shifting the supply-demand governed price point to an overall higher value.

When it comes to China’s nuclear power plans, please do not forget that they are pretty new to the game. Chinese leaders tend to be a bit conservative and follow a “show me” model of decision making.

If I was running Westinghouse, I would also be cautious about banking on too many sales even if the first AP-1000s are wildly successful. China does not have a good track record of respecting intellectual property rights and is perfectly capable of telling its foreign suppliers thank you for showing us how to build these plants – now please go away while we build them for ourselves.

It will also be difficult to translate all of the lessons learned during their construction to the western world since many of the lessons learned in large construction projects are very specific to the organizations and environments in which they are learned.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast


I was assuming the same amount of NG will be used but at a lower capacity factor, the extra cost is the additional capital cost of NG peak plants, not the cost of NG.


The Spinning Reserve is a hot technology and the US Department of Energy is about to help Beacon Power deploy its patented high speed flywheel in the US. The spinning reserve is not only cheaper than the current method but also faster to address load variances so it’s a win-win for any ISO( not to mention, it’s a green solution which reduces carbon emissions).


“The final cost involves the cost of generating capacity, transmission, storage and backup. This could be extraordinarily high.”

These are real costs for renewable, but these elemetns do not compound in cost. That is, with better transmission you save by needing less backup, and/or less storage.

And some storage (high speed flywheel) may be cheaper than current peaking power.

Upgrading of the grossly ineffeicnt transmission and distribution may be a necessary efficiency strategy regarless of the renewabel mix.


Dear Barry,

I checked the MIT update. Having read it I went back to Mr Gore’s comments to see who had plagiarised who. They were close but not 100%.

The MIT data brings out the lineball nature of the costs of production for nuclear and (untaxed) coal. They show the importance of the cost of capital in swinging the decision from coal to nuclear and point out that nuclear with the same cost of capital as coal would produce cheaper power. In round terms I guess the tax, or cost of the pollution permit, would have to be in excess of $30/ton of CO2 (giving about 3c/kWh.) to tip the cost argument unambiguously in nuclear’s favour with its higher cost of capital.

They argue that the higher cost of capital for nuclear reflects the greater degree of uncertainty in establishing a nuclear as opposed to a coal fired generating plant. Part of that extra cost seems to be due to the uncertainty surrounding the technology and they suggest that this is an appropriate argument for subsidising some early new plants. I think they are also arguing that the uncertainty associated with large projects (all your eggs in one basket) is inherent in large scale investments. The final uncertainties seem to be those associated with clean up cost and proliferation. The first of these two should be a private cost, but I don’t know how you should internalise the cost of proliferation. I think nuclear could rid itself of the first uncertainty cost, but the large size costs and cleanup costs seem more difficult to reduce.

Interestingly they argue (under Fuel Cycle Issues) ‘that the cost of recycle is unfavourable compared to a once through cycle, but, the cost differential is small relative to the total cost of nuclear power generation.’ They do not comment on the relative costs of the once through cycle and the closed IFR.

Kind regards,

David Murray


Dear Barry,

I agree that some of the costs of large scale renewables are unknown. We are beginning to get some idea of these costs with 20% penetrance, but not with 50% (although Spain briefly got to 40% on one windy weekend recently). The simple dollar cost of installed capacity is useless and I think we have to use levelized costs even though discount rates can cause havoc with the calculations for nuclear and renewables which are so capital intensive.

If renewables have to be located in remote areas then transmission costs will be important. Geothermal and wind are probably reasonably location specific, solar thermal is less so. But photovoltaics do not have to be.

Storage and/or backup (they are substitutes) costs are relatively poorly researched. Pumped hydro is a tried and tested technology. Stored overnight solar is up and running but we don’t yet have evidence on the costs of overnight or extended heat storage.

Neil, above, suggests the integration cost is of the order of $5-7/mWh. This is of the order of 0.5-0.7 cents/kWh, which is not a huge amount compared to generating costs of at least 4 cents/kWh and retail prices in excess of 12 cents/kWh.

Again Neil gives a round trip energy loss for pumped hydro of the order of 25 – 30%. Daily price (I just checked Nemco for today’s prices) can vary between $10 and $50/mWh. If you buy power at $10 and can sell 70% of it at $50 you have just made $25. That is what pays for the pumped storage.

Redox and flow batteries are being worked on for bulk storage of electricity. Again round trip energy losses of the order of 25 – 35 % are being talked about. Currently capital costs of the order of $100 to $500 are talked about and there seem to be suggestions that this could fall significantly.

I think there are so many options out there that is difficult to argue that these costs could be extraordinary. Blind faith in technology is stupid – but I don’t think that I have the faith bug. I think there is enough evidence to remove the need for faith.

Kind regards,

David Murray


This is one of the better nuclear discussions on any blog.

I think Neil makes some good points. I always argue that the future *will* be a multi-portfolio energy generation mix. It’s not by *choice* but it is what it is. Again, we have to look at China here.

China has planned to go nuclear in a big way. But the 160GWs on the outside, very optimistic, etc etc by 2030 will only represent about 15% of it’s capacity and maybe 20% supply to it’s load (given the better capacity factors for nuclear compared to coal). It’s massive in sheer numbers, but about the same as the U.S. is now.

I see wind and solar increasing as well as a percentage in China but I would be surprised if it gets to double-digits capacity even by 2030. I’m convinced the Chinese are more interested in this more for external marketing in terms of selling systems to richer countries that for itself. But that is simply an educated guess.

To answer Rod’s point about the issue of Chinese “reliability”. I’m not sure if Rod knows but the intellectual property rights of Westinghouse (a Japanese owned company) has already sold the AP1000 rights to China under a multi-tiered (among in the companies themselves: design, components, etc) agreement with the Cxx-1000 as a the result. This unit is 1400MWs and set for internal and external marketing.

The basis of all this is the super-vertical integration of their nuclear components industry where 90% of the design and construction is indigenous. I suspect that the other 10% is in control schemes and components, radiation metering, etc. But again and educated guess.

How this will all shape out we won’t know until the next revisions of the various “5 Year Plans” are issues based on the success or failure of the current plan. The majority of the plants that are under construction go on-line by then AND the planned NPPs are started between now and then as described in their announcements (see: ); there are no serious mishaps, and fuel supplies are secured, then, as my Chinese contact told me…there is “160 GW limit…it’s unlimited”.

If that happens that that % becomes upwardly flexible. The Chinese WANT to replace their coal with nuclear and other non-carbon spewing sources of energy.

In fact Neil brings up something we don’t often look at and that is the massive hydro development underway in China. It’s not just 3 Gorges Dam. There are many projects, with dozens and dozens of GWs to be installed. Their potential is amazing.

The problem is that the Chinese gov’t has not issued statements, or mission goals, to argue that they will reduce their coal growth, and then reverse it, based on these new projects. It is a major issue which people who have contacts with the PRC need to get on the ball about.

Lastly, Rod makes and excellent point. Rod pays close attention to the gas industry in the US. Like the people on The Oil Drum, Rod sees this current low prices of NG as very temporary. I believe his correct. If prices, or, rather, when prices take off again, we will see a very large ‘sabot’ (French for wooden shoe, used to ‘sabotage’ machinery by militant workers on strike) thrown into renewable “grand plans”.



I also want to make one more point. Rod made this too. The ability of the US or any industrialized country to ‘scale up’ can be quite amazing. And this without a WWII type mobilization.

Even excluding China, the worlds nuclear component manufacturing base is expanding. From the giant 500-ingot-ton presses going in France, Britain, Japan, S. Korean and the U.S., to large component manufacturing (pumps, steam generators, etc) in the U.S, France and Germany and Russia, the industrial infrastructure is being rebuilt, from scratch almost. There is absolutely no technological reason why a repeat in the number of new starts for NPPs can’t be repeated from the 1970s. It is very plausible that by 2015, the idea of a new plant “once a week” world wide isn’t doable. And again, this excludes the Chinese who do it on steroids.



After reading the link on China’s nuclear program it would appear that scaling up is going to be a slow process. I didn’t realize that China has only completed one 1000MW reactor since 2003 and that the decision for the 12GW under construction and 35GW planned was made in Sept 2004, and that only a few have actually started ground breaking construction(in 2008).The 50 GW planned by China in 2020 will be only 5% of electric power. This is somewhat different from the popular impression that China is going all-out nuclear power. It does give another perspective on the push in China for a rapid expansion of wind energy, perhaps this is seen as a stop-gap measure until nuclear can be expanded.

If all the reactors planned and under construction in the world are completed by 2020 that will be 157 reactors or 14 per year (1.2/month), about half the peak build rate in 1975-1990 (one/2weeks). Longer term it looks much more promising because the capacity of the industry will have grown by 2020 even if the build time is still 8-10years, although China’s 2030 target is still only 10% of electricity from nuclear.Hopefully this will increase to at least 25% by 2030, otherwise I can’t see those 500 older coal burning plants being retired.


Yes, exactly. We don’t really disagree.

Looking at China as it’s pushes for “5%” it might seem low. Certainly you are giving that impression (this is the 2020 number you correctly note). On the other hand, what China is attempting to do is quite large and ambitious. There is not other term for it because of absolute terms.

First…there are 12 GWs under construction NOW. that’s about about 9 plants. That is…12 GWs more than the US is doing or has been formally approved.

50 GWs by 2020 is only “5%”. But’s it’s virtually “generational” as they will be all new, advanced plants, many Gen III AND Gen IV. The only problem with the 5% is that it’s only, at best, 5% mitigation of coal.

I noted in my response to you that this period between now and 2015 is going to be very important. These new plants will be going on line. They will be successful or not in their budget and “COD” schedules. They will be huge learning experiences as they develop their (and out) expertise in construction, testing, budgeting, etc. So, I think this is “monumental” and earth shaking.

So even though it advances nuclear to “5%”, it’s half that which is produced in the U.S. in terms of GWs, and, in only 11 years.

The Chinese have actually suggested they are in fact looking at 70GWs and even 80GW, not 50GW but you point still stands.

If it works out, and component industrial infrastructure in facts ramps up as well, expect the Chinese to see more new builds in the period leading up to 2020 and a whole rescheduling of their post 2020 5 year plant .

This is why I’m mildly optimistic.

I think wind, for them, even as it’s expands, is still quite experimental. Even with large capacity factors and build times shortened, the Chinese, and this is my impression, are still not sure how to integrate wind into their overall schemes for grid and, CO2 mitigation. Another topic. But I don’t begrudge their plan for wind because it in no way effects their plans for nuclear, or hydro. I wish every country in the world would follow China’s example.



There would be no production bottlenecks for factory produced LFTRs. The more LFTRs produced the more automated, labor savings technology can be included in the production process. For a 10% efficiency hit, you can expand shift from an exotic and expensive Nickel Alloy to stainless steel a material that is a lot cheaper, and available in almost unlimited supply. You could potentially build 10,000 LFTRs a year, far more than the number required in the most ambitious plan. Setting up can also be handled efficiently, especially if old power plants are being recycled. Production can be rapidly scaled up. LFTR operation does not required a skilled and highly trained staff. There is no particular challenge for a nation with advanced industrial skills.


It is unlikely that the world will have a Nickel steel shortage. The price spike in Nickel 2 years ago was due to delays in a lot of new capacity using very abundant laterite ores(1%nickel). Several of these plants are now in care and maintenance until prices recover. Acid heap leach can also expand rapidly if prices increase about X2 but still only half of 2007 peak prices.

I see the major “bottle neck” the time it takes to increase capacity and the time to build the whole power plant from the decision to go ahead, ordering components,building foundations, and actually building the reactors. You can see this even in China, with desperate power shortages over last >5 years, only 2380MW new nuclear starting in 2010, 2730MW in 2011,3030MW in 2012, by 2013 starting to see big projected increases(7,00MW per year),but I don’t think that construction for these (beyond foundations?) has actually been started.Perhaps someone knows their status?

LFTR operation does not required a skilled and highly trained staff
I am guessing this is an off the cuff remark, similar to “the Titanic is unsinkable”, lets hope the tradesmen working at nuclear plants are very well trained and don’t check for air leaks with candles.


At energyfromthorium, there are various engineers working at the university levels with different plans for different kinds of implementation for LFTR schemes.

Several involve fully automated versions, sort of like a nuclear ‘battery’…you dig a whole, attach it to a main xfr bank, attached controls and bury the sucker.

Charles remark is not off the cuff at all. In sideline discussions with him I noted that even if we could produce, say, a 100 MW LFTR battery, the *politics* of such an innovation would demand staffing, even at minimal levels.

It is looking LFTR deployment, and probably IFR deployment, like many Gen IV deployments, very much outside the box. Remote siting, along with a bunch of capacitor banks, for example, in the middle of Montana along the big HVAC transmission lines to control for frequency and voltage control, you could place a few of these LFTR modules and leave them. You could plop one down in an unstaffed substation or a fully staffed oil refinery. The uses are endless for cheaply produced energy: electricity AND heat.

The modularity, ambulatory and cheap nature of these reactors will invent new markets, I think.

I’m still partial to a big ass 1800 Alstrom turbine/generator set hooked up to a LFTR myself but scalability is the name of the game.



It one thing to have a remote automated light house or nuclear battery, and another to have a nuclear power plant with poorly trained staff. Chernobyl would never have exploded if it had been automated. It was the staff by-passing safety controls( just like is described in Tom Blees chapter 4;), “testing safety systems” by disabling active controls to see if other back-up systems work!!
Please someone tell me that these safety experiments are now done by computer simulations just as nuclear bombs are tested by simulations not actual explosions.


I’m a big advocate of ‘auto/manual’ controls. As a power plant operator who co-ordinated the swap over from analog manual controls to digital auto controls, I’ll tell there is no ‘one’ answer to this. There needs to be auto-matic controls with manual intervention capability.

Most nukes actually have this.

The Chernobyl planks (RMBK) have no engineered out the ability to run their turbine with no minimum steam flow limits, among other engineering-out-bypasses without safety limit checks.

So far all the nuclear battery projects are very different. Hyperion’s 5 MW unit is supposed to be un-manned. It’s all in the talk phase for LFTR with the issue of staffing purely theoretical.

I’m for staffing again, not because I think it actually *needs* it, but because it’s a security issue.



Charles , I enjoyed read at your website, where could I find out more on LFTRs? Do you believe they meet the same safety/risk standards as IFR?

What are the key beneifts of LFTR in you your view?

Are LFTRs operating commercially?



Those interested in the LFTR (liquid fluoride thorium reactor/ Molten salt reactor) should check out this URL.

There are no running commercial or experimental LFTR reactors. That is not to say they are not a good idea. Material research is needed to prove that perceived corrosion problems are not an issue.

There are many good qualities that a LFTR design could bring to the table. One being a molten core can not melt, since it is already melted. It can use low enriched uranium fuels to get started then switch to thorium fuel. It can burn up spent nuclear fuel and transmute the long lived fission products into lower short lived elements. So, instead of 100’s of thousands of years halve life you have about 500 years.
A LFTR should be a lower risk then a IFR because you cannot proliferate plutonium if it is no longer there.

For wind generation…Many thorium mines are the by-product of rare earth element mines. So mining thorium helps produce rare earth minerals.



# The LFTR runs at 1 atmosphere. So heavy duty containment is unnecessary. (there will be some containment, just not the massive dome we see on PWRs).
# Because it’s an atmospheric pressure, almost all the equipment doens’t have to be pressure rated and thus components are vastly cheaper to build.
# The LFTR energy density is much greater than a PWR/LWR so the whole core is about .30 the size of an equivalent LWR.
# The LFTR produces only 1/33 the *volume* of high level waste vs that of a LWR.
# The LFTR waste, because it has online/inline fuel reprocessing, made ‘easier’ and safer because the fuel is in a *liquid* state, can flouridate the really nasties out of the fuel stream.
# The LFTR will burn up 99% of it’s energy content, including all the anticides and anything else remotely fissionable which means,
# The LFTR spent fuel will only be dangerous out to 300 years plus/minus a 100.
# LFTR fuel requirements are 1 MT for 1 GW year. Translated into very stark reality: this means that 4 guys, between morning coffee break and their lunch break can dig, with shovels, enough thorium to power a city of one million for one year. Really.
# Thorium requires only milling to get rid of rocks and soil. It is to be used “RAW” in the LFRT.
# There is 3 to 4 times the amount of Th in the earth than U. The US gov’t has 3200 tons of th-oxide (I think it’s the oxide, not sure) burried in metal cans in the Nevada desert. This is enough to run 100 1GW LFTRs for EACH for 32 years.
# The LFTR is completely scalable…from little bitty 1 MW units up to 1800 MWs and beyond.
# The LFTR can do very rapid load following, equal to or *better* than a gas turbine, currently the fastest load follower around.
# The less a LFTR runs at full capacity, the longer the fuel will last.
# The LFTR will use, we think, and it’s currently discussed within the idea of a Brayton cycle gas turbine using nitrogen or helium as opposed to standard Rankine steam cycles. This increases thermal efficiency to 45 to 50% from the Rankine 33%.
# Brayton cycle turbines handle rapid load changes better than Rankine cycle turbines and are about 40% smaller per MW, again, reducing costs.

’nuff said.



Thanks Brent and David,

Certainly lots to think about.

Charles describes an Indian built plant that I assumed was LFTR. Given that there are no commercial LFTR plants, does that mean the Idian version is different, or just not yet commercial?


The Indian plant at Kalpakkam is a sodium-cooled Fast Breeder, not a LFTR. It is using U as a fuel, though in theory can also use Th. The LFTR is an epithermal design with a graphite moderator — it is NOT a fast reactor (but it does breed: 233-U from 232-Th).


There is very little uranium ore for the human race. Within 50 years of widespread use, we would run out of this material too.

The entire concept of ‘alternative energy’ is deeply flawed, as it only provides energy for the real fundamental problem with civilization, growth, consumption and even capitalism.


I think the plan could be to soften the crash. We’ve got 6.5 billion here and we can’t just disapear.

Other’s here might have different views, but I think we are in for tough times, pushing the more vulnerable to greater despiration.

So how do we make what is comming the least worse?


Not true Reader. You need to read Barry’s latest post — the chapter from
Tom Blees on IFR … which is a nuclear reactor technology that can
run for (at least) hundreds of years on the uranium already mined.


It must be a fine book, some foundation wants to send copies to everyone in Congress. Then they’ll be able to confuse chemical binding energies with availaible energy, power with energy – just like author Tucker. And everyone can call it ‘terrestrial power’ instead of nuclear power. I saw an article written by him and wouldn’t waste more of my time on anything he wrote.

Gore’s opposition to nuclear power was a long time forming, prior to his run for the presidency. He has written about that transformation in detail.

I wouldn’t write off nuclear, it would be good to maintain the present generation share. But the industry must prove they can build things on-time and under budget, with several plants. Did that ever occur in the past? Otherwise the financing premiums they pay on their loans will continue to make the nuclear option very expensive and unattractive.


John Howard went to the last election on the platform of encouraging nuclear power for Australia. With all the breastbeating and fear of co2 as a “pollutant” directly causing the warming of the last 20years of the twentieth centuary,[which ,according to the ukmet office and the satellite data has now ceased ]Australia has been unable to build any addition to it electricity generation except for gas fired plants,. The resulting blackouts in Sydney and the recent 20% price increase to electricity in NSW speak volumes for our state governments lack of planning. Are we to follow South Africa and California with rolling blackouts, or are we going to build nuclear or coal fired plants? . Wind and solar have been “just 5 years around the corner” for 25 years, but whose counting? Shell must have been counting as they’ve abandonded their comittment to wind and solar, after pouring a few countries worth of GDPs down the plughole. GE is still in there, but only because they stand to make a motza out of cap and trade, as does BP, Duke Energy, and countless others. Of course, both the Obama and Rudd governments NEED the income from the cap and trade tax if they are ever going to get themselves out of the debt with which they’ve mired themseles [and us!]. If we go nuclear ,lets do it because its the logical, scientific , economically correct thing to do, not because of the spurious co2 bogeyman.


Sydney didn’t have rolling blackout because of lack of supply, it was a poor repair on an underground cable.
Victoria and South Australia did have blackouts in late Jan 2009, due to lack of capacity especially overloading the Bass-Link, when very high demand occurred due to record high temperatures. Gas fired, or more wind power or more coal fired would have helped but the greatest help would have been to be able to shut down A/C for short periods or an increase in the Bass-Link, TAS had surplus power.
Wind and especially solar would help to supply high temperature demand spikes, NSW doesn’t need any more coal because of the existing excess off-peak capacity, NG would be more flexible.Nuclear would be good but it’s going to take 10 years, so we will need either to reduce demand,or add other fast build peak power. If we build more coal we are stuck with using it for 40 years 24/7.


I would qualify “Nuclear would be good but it’s going to take 10 years” — I agree that at a pace imagined by the Switkowski review, it’ll take 10 years before Australia has its first reactor supplying electrons to the grid. It could be shortened to perhaps 5-7 years with sufficient attention — but that is a socio-political matter.


The Chinese experience can provide a few lessons for Australia on how long it might take under the most favorable circumstances.
China seems to have announced a decision to rapidly expand nuclear power in Sept 2004. With the exception of Lingao and Qinshan that were 3$4 or 6&7 cloned additions none of the other planned greenfield reactors started construction until 2008 and none will be completed until 2012, most in 2013-2015(8-11years later). Even by 2015, nuclear power will only provide 2% of China’s electricity.
The reality for Australia is that 8 years would never be possible, 10 years is widely optimistic, but it’s not primarily socio-political. Look at the shorter build times for desalination, just as political, major environmental issues. I think a major new dam construction would also take >10years it the nature of a very large complex project.


By 2015 there will be plenty of accumulated Chinese experience. Time for us to sort out the socio-political issues in the period 2009 to 2015. Then we build a couple of Gen III+ reactors with a 3-4 year construction time. So 8-10 years is possible for an accelerated schedule (i.e. power before 2020), though I agree, on reflection, that 5-7 for Oz is simply pie in the sky. Certainly most of our emissions reductions in Australia for the decade 2010 to 2020 will come from renewables and EE, but that should not make us complacent about doing everything possible to get the nuclear pathway laid out.


Barry, I think people aren’t afraid of nuclear power per se — I think people are afraid that the worst things that could happen from extensive expansion of fission power are really bad for a very long time.

So are the worst things that are going to happen from a CO2 excursion, and not many people are really clear about that for the ocean or the long term either.

So it’s one unknown against another unknown. The one common thing is that we know people are stupid and shortsighted enough to screw up really badly.

The trouble with making things foolproof, you know, is ….

But — do kids sing this where you grew up?

“I know an old lady who swallowed a fly
Oh I don’t know why she swallowed that fly.
Perhaps she’ll die.

I know an old lady who swallowed a spider,
that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly,
But I don’t know why she swallowed the fly.
Perhaps she’ll die.”

And so on.

You’re convinced it’s needed and can be done safely.
Me too. But are you convinced people are smart enough to actually do it safely when they can make a better short term profit as individuals by cutting corners?

The other thing people will be wondering — if we do a big buildout of nuclear — is whether the businesses involved will have any reason not to act like they have been doing. Even assuming competent people _in_ the workforce, will the owners do the bankrupt-and-default routine leaving the citizens holding the bag, taking short term profit at others’ expense.

That, I think, is what you need to convince enough people about.
Both those who are afraid others will cut corners, and those who are worried someone will try to stop them from taking the full profit the free market allows, er, cutting corners.

What’s the worst thing that could happen if we did a big nuclear expansion?
The greedheads would say thank you, now piss off ecologists, and continue strip mining the ocean for short term profit.

Who benefits from building these things and how can you tell?


Er, would someone please come argue with this worry?
How can we do this _without_ empowering the greedheads to take it, and the planet, away from us once we make it available?


Hank, this exact point is covered extensively in the later chapters of P4TP, so I’d encourage you to read those. Oversight and responsibility over all aspects of the nuclear cycle is obviously a critical necessity.


Um … why don’t you give us the answer?

I can provide an analogy. A few years ago I heard a very disturbing story about a big CRT TV killing a small child by falling over onto him. The CRT market has had the stuffing knocked out of it by flat panels. None of these, I think, has the combination of front-heaviness and high total mass that those big vacuum bottles had. So I think the whole class of devices has an annual toll of toddlers on the order of 0.0001 if not absolutely zero.

How does the analogy extend to encompass your question? Perhaps thus: how do we know the same corporately-controlled stuff won’t be displayed on those displays as was displayed on the CRTs.

It seems to me to be a separate question from the question of their safety. Fair analogy?

(How fire can be domesticated)


And, further, I do agree this technology is needed.

I’m just concerned it’ll be set up in a few locations and used to reprocess fuel but considered too expensive to make the standard design, despite/because of the inherent safety features.

That’s the ‘greedhead’ concern — there may be no answer to this at all; capitalism is basically very good at letting concerned people assemble large valuable properties at their own great personal expense, then letting short-term profiteers take them away for pennies on the dollar. Fermi Paradox is my real worry here.

Heck, if there were anyone setting up in business to invest in these things (or in asteroid tag-and-release, or in space elevator grade cabling, or in large areas of protected environment) for the long term, that’s where my money would go.

What worries me is that our economies — of all varieties — are not set up to protect long term investments like this, near as I can see.

I’m looking for the side of the argument that says this can really be set up and kept going over more than one human life span, safely.

Or else, I guess, I’m looking for recognition that, like Microsoft Windows, our economies are capable of creating far more complex works than can be maintained over the long term, and that continuing to work on any document/project long enough guarantees that it’ll become a house of cards and corrupt eventually.

What would our plans look like if we accepted that the strongest and best building materials we have really _is_ the equivalent of decks of cards, and we might as well get good at working at that scale?

Maybe these reactors qualify in those terms. I’d like to think so.

Setting up something that basically is a big indestructible solid block that does nothing but emit heat for a long period of time even without management of any sort — that’d be worthwhile.


Gore’s got a chapter on nuclear in his new book “Our Choice”. It starts with a quote from the MIT Future of Nuclear Power study which he uses to support his general thesis that nuclear in the US stopped expanding because it was too expensive. He is careful to ignore the fact that the MIT study he refers to only found that nuclear was not competitive compared to fossil fuel generators that could emit CO2 for free. He defers to MIT studies in his chapter on Carbon Capture as well. In the nuclear chapter he refers the the panel at MIT that came up with The Future of Nuclear Power as “the experts”. As he distorts the conclusion the MIT panel came up with to support his argument that they would not agree with he uses the same tactics as those he despises, i.e. deniers.

In the chapter on geoengineering he says this: “moreover, the sulphur dioxide cloud circling the earth would partially negate the effectiveness of the effort now beginning to shift electricity production to solar panels” when discussing the proposal to inject sulphur compounds into the stratosphere if it dawns on civilization that an emergency has arrived and time needs to be bought to reduce emissions.

I can’t understand the attitude of many who say they understand how serious climate change is who attack any mention of carbon capture and nuclear power. The problem is CO2 and other GHG in the atmosphere, not whether electricity is generated by solar or not.


Carbon capure will NEVER work at commercial scale and it certainly won’t be something that would be worth trying.

It’s conceptually nuts. Anyone who doesn’t like the idea of locking up a few tons of actinides for a thousand years isn’t going to like locking up giga tonnes of CO2 forever.


You are too optimistic, Al Gore is not ignorant of the benefits of nuclear power. He knows it well, but was awaiting payment from Qatar for his position (in their vastly inflated price for Current TV). Gore only exists to give cover to the fossil fuel industry, just as Gerhard Schroeder did in Germany.


[…] So, what we have here is Al Gore using a situation he helped bring about as a reason to be skeptical of nuclear power. Instead what he ought to do is apologise for the wrong headedness of the Clinton-Gore administration on the issue, and support calls for the Obama administration to restart the IFR programme. Gore, unfortunately has long had a blind spot on nuclear power. […]


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