Monthly Archives: September 2021

Bitcoin and Nuclear Power

The Wall Street Journal reports that bitcoin miners are turning to nuclear power plants to make their huge energy use appear to be less damaging to the environment.  The article “Bitcoin Miners Eye Nuclear Power as Environmental Criticism Mounts,” says that bitcoin miners in the US are setting up mining facilities the size of several football fields near nuclear power plants to take advantage of the fact that nuclear p

By design the number of Bitcoins is limited and it becomes more and more difficult, and more energy intensive, to mine additional Bitcoins.  Using so much energy has made Bitcoin environmentally unpopular. If Bitcoins had not become so valuable, it would probably be uneconomic to mine them using any kind of commercial energy.

The article details the growing problems with nuclear power. Nuclear power has become less competitive as fracking has made natural gas less and less expensive. Fear of nuclear power has meant that few new nuclear plants are being built in the US. Almost all nuclear plants are old and are on the verge of being retired.  According to Wikipedia, between 2000 and 2020, the amount of electric power produced by nuclear energy in the United States has remained almost constant at about 20%.  Meanwhile during the same period, the percentage produced by coal dropped from about 50% to 20%; the natural gas percentage rose from 16% to 40%, and the renewable percentage rose from 10% to 20%. For renewables, the biggest change was in wind energy production, which rose from almost nothing in 2000 to over 8% in 2020. The big drop in coal usage has largely been replaced by natural gas, with some contribution from wind energy.

Producing electricity with natural gas produces less greenhouse gas than with coal, but the result of burning gas is still carbon dioxide. If there were a real carbon tax, producing electricity with natural gas would become more expensive. Nuclear plants do not emit carbon dioxide, which is why Bitcoin miners are turning to it to improve their public image.

The Breeder Reactor Argument

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a lengthy article about the problems of using plutonium in nuclear power reactors, essentially an argument against breeder reactors.  It is based on a book by Frank von Hippel, Plutonium: How Nuclear Power’s Dream Fuel Became a Nightmare. It is essentially an argument against TerraPower, a new type of reactor proposed by Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and others, including some funding f

The Bulletin article argues against any use of plutonium for power generation because of two downsides:

  • Potential use of plutonium in a nuclear weapon;
  • The danger of serious nuclear accident;
  • A related problem is the disposal of dangerous nuclear waste. 

India’s use of civilian-produced plutonium in its first test nuclear explosion in 1974 illustrated the weapon proliferation dangers.  The US government turned against the use of plutonium in power reactors, but Britain and France continued to pursue the technology.  Separating plutonium from spent nuclear fuel is called reprocessing, which is an essential process for creating plutonium for weapons.  The US agreed not to oppose reprocessing in certain countries, including the UK, France, Japan and Germany.  The Soviet Union of course had its own reprocessing plants for military or civilian plutonium.  The book then discusses how most of the countries that started reprocessing largely abandoned the technique, except for France, which relies on nuclear power for much of its electricity.  Beside France, reprocessing continues in India, Russia, Japan and China. 

According to Wikipedia, TerraPower’s fuel cycle plan does not involve reprocessing nuclear fuel to produce plutonium.  The plutonium would remain in the reactor.  As the uranium fuel in the reactor center core is used up, the plutonium produced in outside layers around the core who take over as the fuel. All the waste would remain in the reactor until it was decommissioned.  Of course, this still leaves the problem of waste disposal in the future, although it reduced the proliferation problem. 

According to The Guardian, the first reactor of this type may be built in Wyoming. 

Nuclear Power

In its effort to control global warming and the resulting climate change, the world should not ignore nuclear power.  Nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases.  Many environmentalists oppose nuclear power because they fear an accident.  They would rather freeze in the dark than build another nuclear power plant to keep the heat and lights on.  Dealing with climate change would be easier if the it did not require giving up creature comforts like heat, light, the internet, electric cars, and all the other things that run on electricity.  We can produce electricity without producing greenhouse gases.  We should not turn out backs to that option. 

With current technology, it appears unlikely that the US can replace all carbon-fueled electric generation plants with renewable sources of electricity.  Wind and solar can produce significant amounts of electricity, but neither can be depended on to produce the needed amount 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  Hydroelectric power from dams has been a long-time important source of electricity, but a water shortage is seriously limiting power production in the western US.  Storage technologies like batteries and hydrogen can help fill gaps when solar or wind power are unavailable, but so far is incapable to supporting the entire US power grid, leaving the job of picking up the slack to carbon-fueled plants that emit greenhouse gases.  Nuclear could pick up the slack easily without emitting greenhouse gases. 

Accidents at nuclear plants are a hazard.  There have been serious nuclear accidents, such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, but others, such as Three Mile Island, caused little lasting harm.  Compared to the disasters that climate change may bring, even the serious accidents may be less harmful than climate change.  The affect many people, but are localized, while climate change affects the whole world, bringing drought, crop failures, starvation, mass migration, hurricanes, rising sea levels, flooding cities.  Climate change is more likely to destroy several major cities than nuclear power is. 

Evidence of the fact that nuclear power is relatively safe is the fact that the average age of the 94 nuclear reactors operating at the 56 nuclear power plants in the US is 39 years old, according to the US Energy Information Agency.  Twenty-three nuclear reactors are shut down and being decommissioned.  These reactors produce about 20 percent of the electric power in the US.  The Energy Information Agency projects that because nuclear plants are old and are not being replaced, nuclear power will have less generating capacity in 2050 than it had in 2020.  This will be bad for global warming.