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The potential of Nuclear Energy anno 2019

F. Udo

12 Nov. 2018

Revised 5 March 2019

English version Aug. 3 2020


The debate about nuclear energy has flared up again in our country. Strangely enough, it was a comedian on TV who gave it the punch. The editors of the TV program were probably inspired by the conclusion of the IPCC, that the world should get rid of fossil fuels. If we don't, "the world will warm up more than 2 degrees within 30 years",

To this the IPCC links the usual scenarios, which predict a climate armageddon.

The climate discussions led by our climate gurus Nijpels and Samson took over the IPCC's ambitions blindly, so the Netherlands must emit half as much CO2 in 2030 and we will be free of CO2 emissions in 2050. We will do this without using nuclear energy.

Nobody knows how to do that, but a life without ambitions isn't worth living, is it?

"Everyone has to participate and everyone has to make sacrifices", as said by the leader of the discussions.

The time scale is used as an excuse not to include nuclear energy in the discussions, because nuclear energy is too expensive, it takes 10 years to obtain a building permit, the construction time is 10 years and radioactive waste is a major problem. It is admitted that the probability of accidents is small, but when it happens, hell descents on earth.

Samson (now advocating green energy in a well paid job in Brussels) said in a radio interview, that the well-being of his children and grandchildren would be better guaranteed with really sustainable cheap energy.

Unfortunately he could not give a description of how that energy would be generated. [1]

Since the TV conference on this subject, the safety aspect has not been given prominence, but the rules to guarantee safety are still absurdly strict in the West. The industry considers social acceptance to be too low and therefore the risk too great to build a nuclear power plant.

An example:

In response to the renewed interest in nuclear energy, a local government in the south of the country has just passed a motion to ban nuclear power stations in the province.

[1]. "Unfortunately, between dream and deed, laws stand in the way and practical objections."  (Elschot)

A. The costs

History teaches us that the usual learning curve for applying a new technique does not exist for nuclear energy. Nuclear power stations, especially in the West, have become more and more expensive over the years.

In 1965, reactors were already being built in the USA for $2000 per kW of installed power, but 50 years later this was only possible in India and South Korea. What is striking is the big difference between the different countries and the enormous increase in costs in the USA. This is because of the mass of rules, which was poured over the American reactors after the relatively innocent accident in Harrisburg,

In the West, the cost of nuclear energy is mainly determined by rules dictated by the fear of "radioactive radiation". This term shows the incomprehension of the authors of pamphlets against nuclear energy, because "radioactive radiation" does not exist, the correct concept is ionizing radiation.

The Dutch power station at Borssele falls in the highest cost category with $6000 per kW installed power. In addition, the power station is regularly rebuilt to "meet the highest safety requirements".

Nobody wonders whether these requirements are reasonable, but as a result, the power station is running at a loss. It should be borne in mind that dozens of nuclear power plants in Europe have been providing cheap power for many years without a serious incident.

Is a nuclear power plant of $2000 or $4000 per kW of installed power expensive?

Onshore wind turbines cost €1400 per kW of installed power, offshore wind now costs about €2500 per kW. A modern gas combined cycle plant (CCGT) costs in the order of €1500 per kW installed.

It should be noted that the capacity factor of nuclear power plants is close to 100% with security of supply, while wind turbines are subject to the vagaries of the weather and are idle 60 to 80% of the time.

The fuel costs in a CCGT are many times higher than those of a nuclear power plant.

B. The construction time.

The construction time of nuclear power plants suffers from the same shortcoming as the costs.

The reaction in the US to the Harrisburg incident has extended the construction times from 3 - 7 years before the Harrisburg accident to 7 -15 years after Harrisburg. Small reactors were all built within 5 years in the period before Harrisburg..

"Small is beautiful"

Is it possible to bypass the legal barriers with small reactors?

C. Small Modular Reactors (SMR).

How small can they be?

Examples of SMRs are the reactors used in submarines and icebreakers. 

These have a capacity between 50 and 150 MWatt.

A Belgian club of supporters of nuclear energy, the Nuclear Forum, propagates the Small Modular Reactors (SMR), but everything is still in the project phase.

They write:

A model for passive safety

Most SMRs use passive cooling. In concrete terms, this means that the SMRs no longer need external sources (such as electricity or diesel generators) to cool the reactor after use. This innovation makes the installations even safer.

Advantages of a modular system

Flexibility, cost efficiency and speed are the most important assets. Due to their modular design, the different modules of an SMR can be activated separately depending on the demand for electricity. The ability to build cheaply and quickly is important, but a prerequisite is the removal of the regulatory zeal resulting from the fear of ionizing radiation.

D. Is radioactivity always dangerous?

My uncertainty about this came from the "Linear no Threshold" theory (LNT), which until recently served as a guideline for the degree of harmfulness of ionizing radiation. The LNT rule states that the damage caused by ionizing radiation is proportional to the dose of radiation. This means that any dose, no matter how small, has a harmful effect proportional to the dose. The argument behind this is DNA damage caused by the ionization trail.

The LNT rule works fine in determining safety standards, because from the LNT rule follows:

Any radiation dose above natural level is harmful and leads to extra cancer cases, only zero radiation is permitted.

Applying the LNT rule in everyday life leads to absurd conclusions:

Eating 100 aspirins is a classic way to commit suicide: 100% chance of dying.

The LNT rule now says that eating 1 aspirin is fatal in 1% of cases.

Can you see the daily massacre coming?

In nature nothing is simple and linear, because on a harmful influence from outside an organism defends itself. The immune system is activated and in case of success, health is even improving.

In the same way, the organism deals with its daily dose of radiation.  During its existence on earth, man and all living nature are irradiated by cosmic radiation and the natural radioactivity in the earth's crust. This radiation level varies on earth between 2 and

40 millisieverts per year. In the Netherlands the level is between 2 and 3 millisieverts per year.

My uncertainty about the effects of radiation doses remained until I read a book by an American journalist Ed Hiserodt 3 years ago. "Radiation deficiency, suppose radiation is actually good for you."

Hiserodt describes the effects of low doses of ionizing radiation on humans and animals.

The author explains the difference between radioactivity and ionizing radiation, which dose is dangerous and under which dose an inverse effect occurs.

Low doses, but far above the natural radiation level, appear to have a beneficial effect on human health. This effect is called radiation hormesis.

Hormesis occurs at low doses of almost all chemical poisons that we know of and ionizing radiation is no exception.

An example is arsenic, which is used in small quantities as a medicine for diabetes.

Hormesis is the activation of the defence- and repair mechanisms in our body triggered by low doses of poison. 

Think also of the epidemic of allergy, that occurs in children who grow up in an environment that is too clean.

The book is full of examples showing that a moderate amount of radiation is good for you. Since I've read that book and other publications, I've been grateful for the radiation dose I received during my thesis work in experimental nuclear physics, because that dose has probably significantly reduced the risk of cancer in me.


If we deal with the danger of ionizing radiation in a rational way, a nuclear power plant can be built within five years for less than 2000 euros per kilowatt of installed power. In that case, our electric power supply can be made completely CO2 free with an investment of 40 billion euros to install 20 GW of nuclear power stations.

If the capital providers calculate a reasonable interest rate, then nuclear power costs less than 3 cents per kilowatt hour. As a result, the phasing out of gas as a fuel can then become a reality. In France, electricity is so cheap that electric heating is now the norm even without heat pumps and super insulation of housing.

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