Hello, everybody. And welcome to the Decouple podcast, where we explore the science and technologies that can Decouple human wellbeing from its ecological impacts, and the politics that can make decoupling possible.
Welcome back to Decouple. Today, I'm joined by 10 time returning guest, Mark Nelson, the OG of Decouple Welcome back, brother,
thank you, I can't believe it's been 10 is not a little promiscuous.
It's quite, it's quite. And, you know, we are constantly onboarding new listeners. And obviously, there's a lot of people that are working their way back through the the Decouple collection here. So I'm constantly trying to find out a balanced way for you to introduce yourself without being stale to my old listeners, but being fresh to my new one. So I came up with a deuce a new strategy today, and I'm going to try it out on you, Mark. So you have to tell me your Mark Nelson without telling me that you're Mark Nelson go. And I was weird, right?
A little bit. It doesn't it doesn't mean that I'm, it doesn't mean that I can't come up with a really good answers. Just that was just weird enough, and just counterintuitive enough that
he's got anything for me.
Well, I have a mustache, and I think reactors are immortal.
Okay. All right. That's yeah, that actually does label you quite well, if anyone follows you on Twitter. All right, well, we'll leave, we'll leave that awkward pause and move into the future here. And the immortality of reactors is actually the topic that I brought you back on the show to talk about today, Mark, you've been you've been quoted as making that outlandish claim. And, you know, I want to challenge you on it. I want this to be an interesting interview for our listeners. And I have to say, I mean, this is the thing about nuclear energy is that, you know, at least in terms of its public perception, it's this incredibly, you know, powerful technology with the potential to go wrong. And, you know, that needs to be regulated very carefully, where we want the machinery that produces this electricity to be pristine. And so the idea of running reactors, well beyond their design life, into old age, seems to be on its surface level, quite counterintuitive. So this is what I wanted to unpack with you today. This whole idea, because, you know, I think one of the ways that you describe yourself, if I could, you know, offer another suggestion for Tommy Mark Nelson, without telling me or Mark Nelson is that you, you fight to keep nuclear plants alive and to get new ones built, basically, right. I've heard you say that, in several ways. So this is what I wanted to unpack with you. It's a big, big, broad theme, but provide us maybe with some context, because you know, in terms of the existing nuclear fleet, particularly in the West, a lot of it was built in the heyday, I guess, probably the 70s in the States, and maybe the 80s in France are sort of peak nuclear plant, building times timeframes. So these plants are getting old. Just give us that background. I've tried to answer my own question there. But give us a sense of of the world's reactor fleets and why it's important to keep these things open. And we'll get into whether it's a good idea to or not
sure, I think I'd put it this way. New York and Tokyo are both cities of almost exactly the same age. Yeah. Yeah. But the experience of using public infrastructure in those two cities is very different.
So we shouldn't just tear down the whole city and rebuild it every 40
More, is it that Tokyo looks good? Is it that Tokyo looks good because it's stripped to the bone and rejuvenated every, every few years? And the question is, what can and what can't be rejuvenated? And what does or doesn't reset the clock on? How old or how new places? Let's be let's be even more puzzling before we unpack it. So, the sort of Ship of Theseus is a famous philosophical problem posed by the ancient Greeks, which is if you take a ship and you replace one at a time, every single board is it the same ship once not a single speck of the original is left?
Right, right. Just that sort of playing on it?
Well, for our needs is did it function as a ship all the way through? And in which if case it did, then I don't care what you call it, you can rename the ship or the reactor anything as long as it can function continuously the whole way through, then it's the same it's the same thing and it's and it's good as new if it's new. If all the beats is our new,
I think when people struggle with myself included is that we particularly I think, postwar maybe post kind of Edward Bernays. We live in a world of engineered senescence, right in a consumer culture where you know, consumer devices are designed to to have a short lifespan to break and for us to buy new ones. And I think Maybe this message of you know, keeping old nuclear reactors around for a long time would have fallen on more receptive ears in a time when we used to build stuff to last.
You mean like all the all the reactors that we have now? In the US?
Yeah, I guess so. I guess so. You know what I mean? Like, yeah. Anything on
first let me steel man, the people using a lot less steel and things okay. Sure, if the expected lifetime usable lifetime of the device, not because of the device, but because of changes in technology is short, then you could see it as a great deal of waste even a perhaps an environmental problem of over investing metals, and over engineering over designing for use far beyond when the device the object, the tool, will no longer provide the best service for the expected user. Here's another way now let's not steal Manat. If you live in a fast and furious world where keys human institutions crumble, collapse, sold, renamed or renamed restaffed all the time, and there's constant change over in the institution behind backing or behind an object, then, it's very hard to make the argument the people producing these things, that they should produce an object at cost at a disadvantage to cheaper competitors to last much longer than even the expected lives of the executives of that entity or even the entity itself. Mm hmm. So let's go backwards. My argument would be that even if this doesn't convince you to build Well, if you build a building nice enough, like if Sofia in, you know the great cathedral of Eastern Christendom in Istanbul, then you can go through multi 100 year cycles of different governments, different religions, different world philosophies, and the building will still be there. And we'll be beautiful all the way through. So we just and what we've discussed in the last few minutes, we've outlined everything from a toaster, that doesn't work after five or 10 years, to a cathedral that doesn't just survive turnover of of Bishops or turnover of imaams. It's, it survives turnover of civilizations, while retaining the majority of its of its value to us, to people, wherever you are, is nuclear reactors fall on this scale, are they toasters, that need to be shuffled off to the recycler after 510 years when Christmas comes up, and somebody panic buys you a gift that they think will be at least not rejected or our reactors, cathedrals. And there's a there's a, there are actual technical issues, and they are human issues. And then there are societal issues.
Well, let's time travel back and talk about you know, what reactor designers were thinking? You know, because these, I guess, when they were originally licensed, they're licensed with a lifespan. I think that was around 40 years with the NRC. Is that correct? You hear about that, that
it's the length of a full career.
Okay. Right. What what, what was the thought process going going into that? unpack that a bit for us? I think you're hinting at it. But
yeah, so as far as I can tell, the thought process was technology is changing rapidly. The designs of reactors were, I wouldn't say iterating. so rapidly, but certainly the size of the plants was increasing rapidly. And there was a set assumption in the 1960s. That because uranium was considered to be scarce. And because fast reactors were invented along the same time as, as regular reactors, there are people arguing we shouldn't use the word thermal reactors, because it confuses people. But there are reactors that transmute dead uranium into live stuff. And then they're reactors that use the little bit of live uranium that you put in until there, there's not enough left. One side is the first of those is the fast reactor. The second of those is that you can call it the standard. So everyone thought that we would need to switch to fast reactors, in which case, you're building these designs, they need to last under intense, regular operating under even more intense emergency conditions. Then you just had to give a number that said, How long should they be able to last under the under the standard conditions such that at the end of that period, you're still confident that they're good in the emergency situation? Right. And the length of a career 40 years was good enough. It was long enough.
Is that also compared to other sources of traditional generation like a coal on a gas plant, like, what their lifespans are like?
Well, again, Ship of Theseus, right, in a coal plant, you're dealing with extremely hot gases. And as as coal plants became more advanced, honestly, the newest coal plants that Germany built are technological wonders. And they received beautiful architectural treatment that I think should have also gone to the nuclear plants. But I digress. These new coal plants in Germany are of the complexity and the difficulty to engineer and operate as nuclear plants just just without the political oppression that Germans put on nuclear plants. So I guess I would say, We're gonna see how well those plants do. But my intuition is no, they're going to require a lot more downtime. And a lot a lot lower operation in the course of the years, because they have extremely hot gases that there's almost no way to engineer around. Same thing for the gas turbine. Now, if you can drop in replacement parts replacement, primary, you know, the turbine blades at the, at the front of the hottest part of the compression stage and combustion stages, well, then maybe you can replace stuff on the gas turbine, or if the whole thing, you can just re up every 20 years, who really cares, right? So I would argue that although nuclear plants are clearly lasting longer than anyone seems to be putting coal and gas plant or plants through, that's partly because coal and gas plants keep operating at hotter and hotter conditions as we increase the technology level. And that's not really true or hasn't been true of the nuclear plants.
So the other piece of energy infrastructure that has a reputation for lasting hell a long time is hydro dams. There's some nuclear reactors that are looking I think they've already been relicensed in the states, like Peach Bottom to 80 years is that what does that compare to like, some hydroelectric infrastructure, well known hydro projects around the world.
concrete, concrete is just human made artificial. Sedimentary Rock, basically, it's our it's artificial rock. And this rock hardens with time, and where's with time, if you actively with scurrying, scampering little humans protect and inspect that rock, you maintain it, as long as rocks can be maintained, right? There's there's high quality, maintained rock in 2000 year old buildings of exquisite design in Rome,
as the famous Roman concrete. So
what I would want to say when I say a mortal, what I really mean is the key things that would have to be protected for longer life, we have benchmarks for and as those benchmarks age successfully, then we have that much more resets, it resets the clock on when that thing could be expected or should be expected to be decommissioned in the living nuclear plants. Does that make sense? So that is, let's say, there's an oldest reactor in the world. Somewhere, there's an oldest reactor, who's got it do the Swiss habit? Do the Indians have it? Well, there are a few oldest reactors. And as we monitor key parts of those reactors, or shall I say, in reactor years or under neutron Embarkment, we look at what reactors in the world have highest neutron and Barton bombardment, we look at a few unlucky decommissioned reactors and check their metals, we end up with a lot of evidence that every reactor that is younger, or less experienced than those will be able to have an argument to the safety regulator that under emergency conditions, it will be just fine if it continues life. So there are a few Keystone plants or Keystone reactors or Keystone structures around the world that show us without needing to rely too much on theory at all. What the materials are doing under certain conditions as they age?
Well, let's get let's get nerdy about that. Because I think it's pretty, pretty fascinating. You mentioned neutron embrittlement. I think being one of the the biggest determinants of life. We talked a bit about concrete and how that can be well looked after for 1000s of years. What what is the what's the what's the what's the breaking point? What's the thing that can't be replaced when it comes to a nuclear plant? And what's the mechanism by which it gets in brittle or made unsafe?
Well, I'm going to answer that question. But I just had one last thing to say on the issue of protecting concrete is a little Christmas gift to your listeners. So the best concrete protection story I've heard from the nuclear industry actually comes from our friends the Dutch. So in the Netherlands, they're I wouldn't say they're lacks about nuclear safety. No, I think they're incredible at nuclear safety. They're just they don't think that it comes from lots of guns at the plants are incredible security measures. So when some people broke in and scampered up the side of the reactor dome at Forcella in southern Netherlands, and they went on top and they painted a large crack in the reactor. You know, I can just see these Greenpeace activists never produced a single damn thing in their life that anyone needs. And then they're like, Haha, I know what we'll do. There's no crack there. So we'll paint a crack to show how cracks are bad. So they go up, they paint this big crack, and they get caught. And the folks at Borsa let's sue them for damages which included repainting the entire structure which needed to be done anyways, paint is one of the classic things that humans used to protect from the elements from from Navy ships to concrete. It's it's really effective. And they got a free total paint job out of this attempt to embarrass the plant by painting a crack on by Greenpeace.
But of course, they probably painted it matte gray. Right. There wasn't any aesthetic consideration. That's something I'm afraid
I'm afraid they did. They did. So I an opportunity was lost to be sure. But it still was funded by Greenpeace and the effect of all of Greenpeace's campaigns in the Netherlands, are that they just announced that they're pursuing a new nuclear build program.
I heard about that. Just last week, 5 billion euros worth.
Exactly. Okay. Now, let me get to your neutron embrittlement question. Let's zoom in, if you will, to metals, yeah, metals, like the steel in a reactor vessel. Steel is a crystalline structure, repeated crystalline structure crystal, and what do we mean? We mean that the atoms are locked together with chemical bonds in a matrix and a three dimensional matrix that is repeating, it is regular, it is repeating. So um, maybe if people think back to chemistry class in school, they had some instructor who had little toys like, you know, metal, little balls connected with rods, one of the most famous crystalline structures, of course, is DNA. Yeah. It's a, it's a crystal that encodes a repeating pattern that encodes the instructions to life. Well, metals a lot simpler than that much simpler. But in the steel, there are these balls, these atoms locked together with with chemical bonds. And when a reactor operates, bits are flying around like crazy. The key bit for US nuclear people is the neutrons. So these are uncharged, but chunky little particles coming out of the core, or the core of the atom than the nucleus. And they fly. And because you can't really control these things with like, electronic fields or anything like that, they're just gonna go until they hit something. And mostly, these neutrons are flying around in the central core of the reactor where everything that's in there is under like constant bombardment, but you can replace everything. You know, you have sensors in there to see how much neutrons Well, these sensors are being slammed by these things that are like, you know, baseballs or for you, for you northerners like a hockey puck, but rotated to where it's not a disc, right? You can try to stretch your imagination, I think. So these hockey pucks are hitting things, and they're just slamming into things, right? Well, if you have a reactor where a ton of these things are escaping the center and going and hitting your reactor vessel, that's not a very that's you're wasting those neutrons those neutrons should be pointed back and used for reactions, right? Well, it's inevitable that some of these hockey pucks are going to go out and hit the walls have this thick container this this reactor pressure vessel. So what we need to know is over time, neutrons hitting the reactor pressure vessel wall, How hard are they hitting? And what damage are they doing? And how much is this damage is accumulating? Right? At this point, it's pretty clear that if the steel is not like corroding or being eaten away or anything like that, merely the pressure alone over time is not really an operation isn't gonna damage the vessel. I mean, the vessels are, are designed to be under much, much higher pressure many times higher pressure than normal operations to contain an emergency for example. So the question is that overbuilding shall we say that extra safety designed in how much protection does that give the steel from accumulating damage over time from all these hockey pucks hitting now accumulating damage what? So when these hockey pucks hit a direct score bam right there on one of that, that atoms in this crystal structure of the metal, it can knock it out of place I tone and break it can hit with enough energy to break the bonds that hold the atoms together in the crystalline structure. Break What happens in does the crystal repair? Well, it depends on how hard it hits. And here's the interesting thing. That break can sometimes be that the atom that was knocked out of place, bumps, another one out of place takes its spot, and that one sits and then bumps. And so we call them displacements. Because once you bump an atom out of its crystal, what happens next is that you've created a hole, and that hole can start moving around the metal. So where where does that hole go? These holes do not stay in place. Once they're created, they tend to move where do they end up? They end up migrating to whichever location lowers the energy of the structure the the most and that tends to be in places where other holes are.
Or where there's a specific stress, specific stress or strain. That is different from the immediate surrounding area. So the whole goes and goes there. Why would that reduce the overall energy? Why would that minimize it? Because it if your whole goes to the part with a strain, then it can relieve that
stress? Entropy basically, right?
Yeah. Yeah, that's one way to put it. Now. That's as far as I'd want to go as a as an engineer, to get nerdier than that you have to either be an engineering professor or a, or a physicist, right? Or chemists? Well, for our needs, that's enough. The question is, where are all these holes? Going? How many are going there? And what's the what's the meaning for the reactor? Sure, if enough of these holes show up in one spot, you, you create a much bigger problem. I mean, literally, physically, it's larger. Yeah. If you have enough holes go in a line. That sounds like a crack to me. This brings us to one of the issues at the heart of the nuclear phase out in Belgium. If you go online, you will see that people talk about cracks in the reactor vessel. Yes, just from what we've just heard. If people want to go and rewind it, we have enough to know that we can tease apart this news story a little better. What these cracks are is actually that the crystal structure of these reactor vessels is not absolutely perfect. The carbon content that is carbon, one of the one of the many substances added in tiny amounts to change the properties of metals. So in this case, iron, which makes a crystalline structure with just a little bit of carbon in and around 1% 2% becomes much harder than the crystal structure of iron without carbon. Yeah. Now, to make this the make this steel, right, you want every bit of the steel to have exactly the same qualities. If you have a little bit more carbon in one area, and a little bit less than another, you change the properties of those two areas of steel in order to make their their chemical properties their structural properties slightly different. That slight difference that sounds like a stress concentration waiting to happen to me, then it means displacements caused by the hockey pucks hitting the wall, the pressure vessel to migrate over to these areas of slight difference in carbon and and other other substances that are put into the steel for hardening.
So so how do we know if this is a problem? How much of a problem it is? And when we say okay, this reactor vessel is done in Belgium at that level now.
Yeah, so what's interesting about Belgium is it led to a shutdown of the reactor in question when it was found that these carbon gradients so gradients in engineering word just means change in something over some distance or some time or anyway, gradient is a slope. So there's a change in slope or the amount of carbon over a small area of the steel. When this was discovered. An immense amount of effort and money was put into finding out just how bad the issue was. Why was so much effort put in because Belgium is 50% reliant on nuclear is totally dependent on imported fossil fuels for the rest of its energy and basically didn't have an alternative to just actually determining whether the reactor could be operated or not. Cut a very long story short, a lot of science was done really rapidly. investigations on older reactors that have been decommissioned were look steel was examined. Lots of theory, lots of modeling. And I believe they also put some, put some samples of steel in test reactors to bombard them with extra neutrons. To see how they performed, the end result of all this is that no appreciable difference in the reactor under the most extreme conditions and accidents that it was expected to face. In other words, if there were going to be failures, it wasn't going to be the pressure vessel steel on your concern.
I'm tempted to make like a linear no threshold joke here about, you know, 111 little gradient is too much. There's no such thing as, as a safe cracking reactor.
Well, wait, wait, wait, the nature of the most informed anti nuclear arguments here was? How was it that you didn't know about this before? Or why didn't you have better process control at the manufacturing facilities? That is a safety claim that's not quite, this proves nuclear is unsafe. But rather, this proves you don't have a good control of your system, which is the same as not being able to truly tell us for sure whether you've caught all the other errors we haven't noticed yet. Right. And if that's the standard, you're applying, you're going to shut down pretty much everything in the world, but because nuclear has its extra special spiritual condition that we discussed in previous episodes, that that precautionary principle is used in that much more extreme way towards nuclear. I mean, if anything, the lesson for nuclear from COVID is that when you do put it to the population, there is going to be an actual debate on whether the risks and the rewards line up properly for either facing the danger and the unknown, more facing the the, the danger of the intervention. And honestly, people can honest people can come to different conclusions. And I think that brings us to the French crisis.
Well, sounds like you've set yourself up for a little segue there. So I'm going to get out of the way and let you make that.
Okay, Europe's undergoing the worst energy crisis in at least a generation is getting worse, literally every day. Prognosis is extremely grim. And it may very well end in war within months.
Sort of wars war between Ukraine trees, Ukraine anyway,
so in France, look, look, let's let let's let the Baltic stay in a different episode, I'm gonna I'm gonna, I'm gonna stay on the technical and the safety stuff here. That sets the stage, there's a desperate shortage of energy. Whatever Europe was investing in, and however it was conducting its energy investments and running its energy markets, is now revealed to not have been good enough. I'm sure there's lots of blame to go around. I spend a lot of other episodes blaming people. In this case, I want to say we have a dangerous shortage of electricity, we have a well, we have a dangerous shortage of the fuels needed for electricity, and wind and solar can't be counted on and any edition of them doesn't matter for this energy crisis, really, because it's a crisis of enough fuels to keep electricity going when it gets cold distant here in a few weeks or a few months. So under these conditions, every single nuclear plant is like gold. It's it's it's any given any given wind turbine is essentially irrelevant. Any given nuclear is gold, because it's expected to be there because people priced it in as being their energy traders expected a certain amount of nuclear to be there. And the amount that's there is not good enough, partially because countries like Germany, who operate nuclear plants extremely well keep shutting them down. But a big part of it right now is because of countries that don't operate nuclear plants very well keep losing them to unplanned outages. So that brings us to France. France, has an electricity fleet, that with French collaboration is constantly under siege from the rest of Europe. Why? Because it's too good. It's like a cheat code in a video game. It just puts out a truckload of energy and was already built and keeps lasting. And it's just it makes it makes an entire type of Think Tank and economist utterly obsolete. Now, I think that those folks should remain obsolete. In fact, they should go work in the in the mines in Siberia, mining extra coal for Europe this winter, right. But for now, let's just say that the nuclear fleet of France working at full capacity would probably I agree, destroy the European energy market the way it exists, in which case I say fine. redesign the energy market to suit the fact that that France built for whatever reason, 63 gigawatts of nuclear power that assuming it's managed better than the French do should be putting out a colossal quantity of electricity. We're talking 500 terawatt hours rather than the 350 or 360 or 370 terawatt hours is going to put out this year's So what happened in France last week, safety inspections were going on in one of the four most recent to turn on reactors in France. This is a class of reactors called in for that is that they came after the p four, they came after the CP twos, the CP ones and the CP zeroes. It's just the internal designation. So the in four reactors, of which there are four, which is a funny stats joke that I'm sure some of your listeners will appreciate. All four of the infor reactors are about 1500 megawatts, these are big boys. They're real thick. Okay. So they are kind of important, as some of the bedrock units that are just expected to be on in the winter, in the US, they'd be expected to be on all year. But like I said, things are operated differently in France, where the where the goal of French energy policy has been minimizing the uptime of reactors. I wish I were kidding. For about it for about, you know, since about 2015, the, like placed in law, centerpiece of French energy strategy, was making sure the reactors did not put out too much energy. That was enshrined at the center, French law, not having too much clean energy from already built and paid for publicly on nuclear,
just because there wasn't a market for the electricity, like the important Oh, there was
a market, it's just the market would have rewarded the nuclear too much. And it would have sunk the price of, of that type of electricity in all of Europe. And you would have kept building more and more wires to the rest of Europe, or you would have needed to rapidly electrify the economy and have a lot of electric cars and heat pump. Wait, doesn't that exactly sound like the goals that the energy experts are telling us? We're supposed to do? Right? So you had a situation where the central goal of European energy policy, which is who the hell knows what we're going to do, but get rid of the nuclear plants that trickle down to the French who had most of the nuclear plants, the French heard the lesson, which was get rid of our nuclear plants, and they did it at the same time is trying to figure out how to electrify everything to get onto the grid. What we're seeing now the story I'm about to tell you about these inforce is, in the end, like I could quote directly from the Chernobyl show a result of these lies. How do you end up in the most critical winter for an electricity using country that already has devices that should be this central plank of European energy and physical security? Quite honestly, how do you have them just fail on you? Well, in one of these reactors that was down for service and inspection revealed that there was stress corrosion cracking, that could be that could happen and become worse under emergency situations if this emergency piping were needed and used in a disaster. So this was a part of the infor reactor that turns on, to put water cold water into the core to keep the core stable in the event that the main reactor coolant pumps are not working.
Right. So it's it's ever done. So it's backups?
Yeah, it's backup safety. But that's nothing to be sneezed at. If we have nuclear reactors that need backup safety, then you need to make sure that backup safety is ready to go. Now, France doesn't have any backup energy, and it turns out that all of Europe doesn't have any backup energy. So not to jump to where I think we should take this which is what do you do if the entire society is in a meltdown? If your whole society is in a life or death emergency, does that change how you treat the emergency safety system? Let's not go there yet, because in the end, somehow these get inspected and, and repaired and maintained well in Germany, but they don't in France, or they didn't or something was allowed to fester that shouldn't have shouldn't have been allowed to fester. In the end, France has a very, very eager very active safety culture. Right? They are ready to shut down reactors for any reason at any time, sometimes for no reason. Okay, so this is this happens to fit within a national strategy of kneecapping your own reactor fleet. And it should in a perfect world fit well in a strategy of maintaining your reactor fleet forever stopping at the first sign that something's out of whack no matter the day or night you just stop it immediately and you repair you you service right? The problem is, EDF has so many reactors already out for service times their their refueling outages take many times longer than hours in America, Chris,
but it's the same technology. There's not a technical reason that they need to take longer.
So this is a great mystery. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of Telltale novels that is going to come out of the catastrophe that's going to unfold in January and February. Okay. But in the end, think about this. It has been the priority of EDF to sabotage its own fleet. And now its fleet is sabotaged. Whose fault is it? I don't know. EDF is owned by the French state. And the French state frequently had energy ministers who had no qualifications, no understanding of what they're doing. They're put there to transition away from the energy they have to energy they don't have. And then you have a result like this. Like I said, I'm sure we're gonna get a lot of stories. But in the end, EDF takes forever to bring reactors out of back into service. They have an extremely low capacity factor. They even when the reactors work, right, there's sometimes order to shut them down and destroy them.
talking fast and home here.
I'm talking fasten. Hi, I'm here. I've talked about this a little bit, but just for this episode, I think it needs to be restated. In 2017. I with a few of my colleagues and environmental progress took a meeting with the French I would say energy ministry but no, it's the ministry of ecological transition is the ministry overseeing the life and death critical engineered system we call the grid. Yeah, that is it is a ministry of ecological transition for one of the lowest carbon countries in Europe, they need to ecological transition ministry right to help reduce the amount of energy that's just like available when people need it. So we go in there, and I'm trying to make final arguments for fasten home, we just heard from the plant managers out and fasten home that now don't worry about it, even though we shouldn't shut this plant down is going to be so devastating to France that they'll never make us shut another plant down. That was the actual argument from the plant directors at dinner over wine and cheese was Don't worry about this shutdown of this necessary reactor. It will be so painful and devastating to the to the government to France, that they won't make us do it again. Boy, how right they were there anyway. So we go to we go to the energy ministry, because that just didn't sit right with us something felt wrong. And when we met with the unions, they and the mayor of FeS and um, they definitely had a different take on it, then, oh, no, kill our whole livelihoods and destroy our towns, it's fine, because there will be so much suffering in France that another town won't have it happen to, ya know, they didn't want to be martyrs, the unions and the mayor didn't want to be martyrs, but martyrs they were made in 2017. Though, there was still this idea in our heads this crazy idea that we could delay the shutdown. We go to the energy ministry and we sit down with some officials. It gets worse than France. I'm sure we'll look it up. And we can talk more about details and names later. But we go in and we sit at a table and I lay out the case that it's good not to close your nuclear plants because you'll need this clean energy even though electricity prices are low this year. You'll want it and it makes you a lot better than Germany. And then they say well, we have a carbon plan in place and the carbon plan says it's okay to shut this plant out. And then I say okay, well but fasten Haim could power about 3.2 million electric vehicles that if they're Renault Zoe's, and they are powered and driven as normal, French electric cars are you can power 3.2 million throughout the year. And and I I shit you not. The minister official looks at me and says, Oh, electric vehicles. That's transportation policy. They have their own Decarbonization plan
that's very French. Yeah,
it's very French and now they're about to have something even French are doing technically being on the right side of history will having a much worse disaster than the Germans were nothing nothing could be more French than that being right. And and incompetent at the same time.
All right, all right. Well, this is getting a little depressing. So and I want to make sure we don't stay too long zoomed in on this but that's certainly a very important piece of news particularly for this month and for this winter. But let's
let's back up and say how long could the French reactors last if EDF has a house cleaning this this winter and people who are expected to make the reactors work well and not badly get into office and and you know, the board gets cleaned out and all these great things happen that lead to basically nuclear being enshrined as the proper heart of French energy policy, and French nuclear in particular being constrained is the heart of European energy policy. How long could these reactors last? Well, France is very conservative. The Fezzan home reactors had been upgraded for another 10 years of operation. The French upgrading process is much more extreme than, say the American one in France. reactors that are upgraded have to meet the same increasingly strict licensing qualification standards as any new reactor that gets built in the US there's a sort of back fitting rule that says if you maintain the standards that were agreed upon legally at the time that we gave you your operating license, then that remains good enough. That doesn't mean that plants don't go through voluntary upgrades or it also doesn't mean that they aren't subject to extra rules that emerge from events Dear boy so for example, Fukushima leads to everybody getting extra special backup generators guarded by men with machine guns and put high up on hills. So nobody no way could ever crash over it right. So, these reactors in the US do indeed get in proved in their response to extreme events that we learn about. However, in France, the reactor internals the plant, all sorts of things have to be changed to meet the standards of say the new EPRs large reactors that France is currently trying to build. Right and they can do it it seems to take half a billion to a billion euros per reactor. Okay, fasten Haim already had this upgrade done when it was killed. Really. So here's something that fascinated should have done we should have donated fasten Himes body to science, we should have either continued to operate the plant in a test or research mode, or we need to harvest as much steel as possible from the vessels and make sure we do accelerated aging tests on as much of it as possible in as many labs and test reactors around the world to say, What would this reactor vessel steel have looked like in 10 more years 2040 6080 100 The reason why fasten home was chosen to shut down was political, not structural, it wasn't the reactor pressure vessel steel, as on just on a strategy level, the reason why the anti nuclear French government folks had to shut down Isenheim is because it was proving that the reactors could last right. So that's both a depressing and a hopeful thing to say that's in Haim was killed because it was surviving. Fasten Himes death can be the sacrifice that we need to change the way this this awful system works in France, where where traders on the inside to do that French people have put the French people's lives at risk this winter. And I'm not referring to the inspectors who correctly found that something was out of whack on the safety injection system No, not at all, just that the people who put the lowest priority and the worst resources and the worst conditions for the nuclear fleet below all other energy sources, they heads need to roll there. And hopefully the festive time shutdown can lead to a new age of immortal reactors, which brings me to, I think, a hopeful sort of closure. What we're finding is that the reactor vessel steel, the either the samples that we can get a bit of or testing and doing non destructive test that is your test a living reactor in ways that don't just have to destroy the the thing you're testing, let's say the equivalent for you, Dr. Keefer, of like, you know, like little biopsies or, you know, mammograms or things like that, rather than posthumous dissection. These tests are giving regulators the confidence around the world, for reactors of a similar type as fast in time to issue licenses, conditional on continued good performance. For those reactors operate 80 years, and there's nothing that's changing fast enough in them, that 80 years would be the finish.
If you can replace every single thing in a reactor that's made of metal, or plastic, or wire or in anything that is replaceable, and you can maintain the integrity of that concrete dome. You know, like the like the 2000 year old concrete domes and in Rome Now the difference is the concrete domes in Rome just need to hold up under their own weight, the ones in a nuclear plant need to hold up if there's a high pressure on the inside. So, you do have to protect the integrity of the steel in the concrete, we can do that. Then it comes down to the reactor vessel and the reactor vessel steel. There are two approaches being taken. They sort of are emblematic of the way Russian and Western engineering cultures work in Russia, just to make sure they put a big heat gun heat gun on the outside of these reactors and on the inside and they move it around the pressure vessel when during a shutdown and they anneal the pressure vessel steel what that means is heating up the lattice. So the lattice is sort of jiggling right that lattice that crystal we're talking about juggling, all the displacements kind of even out or work themselves to edges or I mean basically, your your D concentrating the displacements, you're resetting the steel to sort of not exactly virgin setting but to your you're turning back the odometer Now I don't want to be like, Oh yeah, turning back the odometer like a used car lot. No, you're physically resetting the effects of bombardment over time of neutrons in the reactor pressure vessel, you're certainly resetting the concentrations of stresses. And the Russians claim that doing this once as a 10 year 10 year boost. In the West, we keep watching, testing, theorizing modeling. And it both ways are likely to be important parts of the future of immortal reactors.
So zooming out again, I mean, actually, before we do something I think's really fascinating is a lot of talk now about a French nuclear renaissance. And, you know, building six new EP RS or reactor logic reactor equivalents. But it's fascinating to me that you know, what you were, what you're reflecting on is that France runs their existing fleet at such a low capacity factor, that simply doing that better would probably be the equivalent of adding six EPR has already to what they have, obviously, that doesn't, you know, meet their peak winter heating demands, which they do a lot of with electricity. But just as an aside, I thought that was kind of fascinating, like you hear about, you know, the, the capacity of the nuclear fleet in the US is quite low as a as a function of the total capacity of the system, but because it's operating 90% of the time that it produces such an enormous amount of America's America's power. So that's just an interesting aside. But I did want to zoom out a little bit for international audience. We've we've touched a lot on the US and on France, but definitely wanted to touch on Canada and Canada a little bit. But I think, you know, I had a very powerful experience, I got to tour two nuclear plants in space about three weeks one was our Candace up at Bruce Power in Ontario. And the other was Huntington, Hunterston B, which is one of the advanced gas reactors, near Glasgow, on the Scottish west coast. And the permanent thing about that tour was it was the first tour to the public since the onset of COVID. And it was the last tour ever of those units, because they're coming offline. The UK embarked on, you know, building their indigenous design, and sort of sticking to that, it's just
be quite clear, Chris, there was a fork in the road, and the British took it. Yep. So the rest of the world did what this is the same time period that France chose to give up on the British style reactors, which they called French style, you know, this being France and Britain, right. So France gave up on their own French style British style reactors, and went towards the French style American style reactors. Yes, yes, Britain didn't, they waited till one more generation of reactors were built around the whole country to realize, oh, shoot, we really bungled this, we should switch to the American style. And they did, where they built one, then they designed electricity markets and broke their whole society, as we're about to see this winter. So the Brits found a way to do almost every single thing wrong. Now, for a brief period of time, the British style, AGR is advanced gas reactors, basically these big concrete boxes lined with steel, with some with, with fuel rods in them and hot gases swirling around, and then going over to a heat exchanger right there inside the big box. And the heat exchanger, passing water in gets bombarded by the hot gas between between steel tubes, and then goes back out and makes electricity. So the advantages here is that it was very British, which is good, you know, the Brits are continuing to make really terrible decisions in nuclear by going British. But that's more politics, we'll leave it aside. Anyway, back when they made their first big sets of mistakes by going British, the thought was, we will operate our reactors at a higher temperature invest more thermal efficiency, I don't have time to get into that interview stuff now. But basically, they were going to have the most advanced reactors in the world with all these great things. And the problem is that you can't get inside the box and switch stuff out. So it's a race between the crumbling graphite blocks that that slow down neutrons and make them go back into the uranium and cause of reaction, those things are wearing out and there's no way to replace them. And also the heat exchangers, these big metal box things that are there to transmit the heat from the hot gases to the water that's going to boil into steam and go into the steam generator. Yeah. There's no way to replace those. And these two things we know for a fact are gonna wear out almost every other type of reactor. We replace this in light water reactor, the moderators changed out every second because that's the water coming through. That's the moderator, then the heat exchanger that is let's say the steam generators are either not having to be replaced if they're the Russian design because the Soviets design them right. And in America, they are having to replace them because we didn't design right but hopefully these will last longer. You can't do this in the British one you would have to cut into the box and that cutting into the box in the end would be like One of the few ways that nuclear plants die in the West are in the non British West, which is if you lose strength in your big dome, it's really very hard to see how you go back from there. The British reactors then are the are the are the ones that are the losers here? All 430 some odd non British reactors, they can be life extended the British ones to race against time. Right? And then they're going to have to shut down.
Yeah, it was. I mean, it was it was a poignant tour. It was very interesting to tour, the CANDU site. And then another another reactor type and another culture. And you're mentioning how in the Netherlands, they don't have guys with guns inside nuclear power plants, scaring the shit out of everybody. But in in Ontario, there's a lot of radiation monitoring. Entering the plant, you have to kind of go through a whole rigmarole and on the way out as well, despite never having entered the nuclear part of the plant. Apparently you can. Yeah, so
in Netherlands, they do have this, but it's if you go into the part of the plant with nuclear stuff in it.
Yeah. Yeah. So different in Canada and in at Hunterston, it was there was no radiation monitoring on the way in or the way out. I didn't see a single person with a gun. It was wild, it was just totally different culture, and just made it feel like a much more natural normal thing. And the tour included a booth where you could look out into the control room and watch the control people doing their thing. It was it was really, really cool. It's very interesting, very, you know, you can and they brought a lot of high school groups there and things like that back in the day. But I digress. We talked a little bit about the UK experience with the AGR. Let's talk about CANDU. Let's talk about kangaroos. I'm from Canada. You know, you realize how special it is to be a nation that developed a technology for a viable reactor type that's been going for 60 years. You know, there's there's not a lot of successful examples you have, you know, boiling water or pressurized water, these gas reactors, I mean, I'm not an engineer, I'm going to run out of designs to riff off. But that being said, it seems like there's a handheld jurist that have endured the test of time, but can't use one of them. We're in the midst of refurbishment for most of our reactors right now. Which is pretty costly. Right. And, and hardly compared
to what a little question, let's just say, Chris, that a lot of things that were supposedly costly in nuclear are found to be radically low cost compared to the emerging system cost of not having energy when you need it.
All right, well, help me understand can do because from from what I'm seeing every 30 to 40 years, we have to swap out a lot of components, the boards of the ship, perhaps as we were, as you were alluding to beforehand, but yeah, walk me through, walk me through can do, you know, can they do one refurbishment multiple refurbishments? I guess we haven't done multiples yet. So we're not sure but what's, what's your what's your take on the relative immortality of the Canada reactor.
So you can in fact, reach in and replace some of the key things that are not replaceable in the British reactors. In some ways, the shape is similar. It's a big, big, you know, it's a big can, right, but the ends are open enough that you can replace the big tubes that have the the, the fuel in them. In fact, I would say I'm confident that the true Ship of Theseus reactor equivalent is can do, you should be able to replace absolutely everything that undergoes any significant neutron bombardment. That is to say, you don't have one large pressure vessel that's real thick and is really strong, but going to be almost impossible to replace, so you better protect it. Instead, the equivalent of your pressure vessel is many of these tubes called Calandra tubes that have the fuel bundles in them riding through like, like little subway cars until they get to the end of the reactor and come out. So although you do need to replace them, you could easily see a sort of industrial utopia, where you have enough of your society powered by can use staggered in time such that when you do need to replace one, it successfully and fully oper. occupies your can do replacement industry, where every 40 years in a way of across the whole fleet, you replace key parts that do wear out. One of the problems that we have in SE, even if you built out a bunch of well, if you built out any one of a long lasting energy technology, and you build it in waves, you may have obsolescence waves where you both have booms and busts. We're seeing this in COVID test where a bunch of COVID test places were at the edge of maybe going bust if they didn't rapidly reduce test production back on, you know a few months ago when we didn't need as many tests It seems, the question is how do you have secure and stable engineering capacity over time? Well, can you may have an answer there, which is that you replace enough of the parts that are the same parts that you would want in the new reactors, that the replacement program is maybe a way of stabilizing between, you know, business cycles of building new ones, I don't know, just a thought. What I'm particularly excited about is that the can dues serve as such a complete platform for a number of other nuclear technologies like the radio isotopes, that the use case for them never stops, there will always be a need for reactors like candies, in my opinion, in a world nuclear system. That's not just energy, but also medicine and agriculture, in which case, why not improve the improve the fuels to, but we'll save that for another time?
Sure, you something you said about the Russians intrigue me a little bit, you're mentioning the annealing of the pressure vessels, but also that their steam generators seem to have been engineered in such a way that they last a lot longer. So tell me a little bit more about the relative immortality of I guess, is the vvr.
Right, well, so clearly, anybody listening to this episode hears that there are different safety regimes that are going to look at different things, with very different action plans to address them. I am not so close to Russian safety and, and licensing, that I know whether they're steam generators would have been replaced in the US they I mean, in the US steam generators were visibly and clearly decreasing in performance over time, it wasn't like a theoretical safety thing, it was that they weren't flowing as well. And there was like little leaks between the side of the water, the water that goes back to the reactor in the water that goes to the steam turbine. Anyway, what the Russians did, they have horizontal ones, and they they have multiple reasons for why this ended up better. I can't absolutely say for sure whether I believe that they knew for a fact that they would last a lot longer than the American ones. But for whatever reason, they made judgment calls that led to those steam generators not having the types of leaks. Certainly, if the Russians need to replace steam generators, they are making large Modular Reactors, they are rolling off pressure vessels and steam generators like crazy all the time, from incredibly experienced factories that have been rolling, with some interruption for, you know, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they've been rolling for a long time, certainly since the mid 2000s. Right. So they could replace them if they needed to. And it would not require restarting their metallurgical industry or their large component industry. So I think that if they found a reason to improve performance or safety, they would do it and replace it, the fact that they haven't needed to suggest to me that they're probably they probably are lasting a lot longer. Now. A bigger question to me will be with the information we now have about steam generators that are vertical in the West wearing out in certain ways are our new ones going to last a lot longer and not need a 2030 or 40 year replacement. We'll see. We'll see.
I guess, like, kind of circling back to the theme here. One of the measures of whether something being run for a long time is worthwhile is how it's performing. So what what is the performance been like of some of these plants as they get into their middle or old age? Or, you know, however, the time scales, you want to look at it? Are they running better? Are they running worse? Are there is there more downtime, more more time for repairs that are that you would expect to be needed as things age in general? Or what are we seeing?
Well, so when I say about reactor and mortality, I have to say except the British when I have when I say about reactor performance during aging, I have to say except for the British and the French clearly now. The plants are doing really, really well. Chris, the US is one of the standard places where there are downsides to the US nuclear engineering culture. For one it's not been great for communicating with the public and to the insane, almost tumor like growth of the security apparatus around plants is unscientific and anti social and quite depressing. But in terms of operating our nuclear plants, like f1 cars, where our pit stops are lightning fast, and upgrades are done in you know just with extraordinary speed and effectiveness and emergency stops during operation which can be on a hair trigger. All these hair triggers around the plant to stop a reactor in an emergency. One of them was the erroneous stops. I was so unfortunate during the blackouts in Texas, right? It's not that we've made it to where we don't allow problems to stop a reactor it's that there's almost nothing that ever stops a US reactor these days, because they're operated with near perfection. And that tells us a lot of what we need to know about how the how the aging is affecting these reactors. If anything We're getting better with age. There is I don't even want to make a fine wine reference, I'm saying that the teams and the shared knowledge between reactors both in one under one owner, the other reactors in the set or among reactors have similar families around the entire world that come camaraderie in reactor operating nations, you know, you can be nearly at war with each other in some ways, and then on the level of reactor operation. It's just beautiful, beautiful cooperation, voluntary cooperation. I think that that's leading to just incredible work culture, safety cultures and operating cultures. In the end, I think that maybe we do some things wrong and regulation, but the end result in the US for operating reactors has been that safety and performance have gone together. Performance has increased uptime has increased, as safety has increased.
And maybe this is this is obvious for you. But in terms of the the ongoing investment in keeping reactors going for as long as possible. The Economics of that compared to building new nuclear or building other sources of energy, you know, you've got some skin in the game here. But what's what's your take on the the kind of literature around this?
Yeah, my skin in the game is that Anti-nuclear People constantly, I think, intentionally at this point on even the dim ones mistake the cost to continue operating with the cost of building new and they make that because they're trying to kill all nuclear. And depending on where we're talking about, they're either trying to kill existing nuclear by talking about the cost of future now nuclear and cutting that off as an option and therefore saying to the entire nuclear industry, you're a dead end, we're gonna kill you. Or they are they are trying to kill off the future nuclear by saying existing nuclear is so expensive, that it's shutting down in various markets or whatever. All of these are, even when they use facts, really bad faith arguments, continuing existing nuclear is the most extraordinary bargain in the entire energy world. Bar none. It's the single best value even if you don't give a damn about Decarbonization. It's the best energy value keeping existing reactors running.
And in terms of I was about to say here, in terms of us reactor closures to date, we saw the Indian Point go offline little Yankee up in Bernie Sanders homestate Have there been any I mean, clearly there's been us reactors that have gone offline because because they were no longer safe or they were of a design that that wasn't workable. But like Have there been any large US reactors that have come offline because they were felt like their components were exhausted I'm thinking maybe send an off re
so no for Santa no for it was a hit job was the was the replacement steam generator process? bungled? Yep, but but like, look, the large one of the largest batteries in the world still hasn't come back online from last landing. Like you know, in California, we're willing to give things multiple tries and to get it right if we decide we support it in the in San Onofre was a hit job. We're gonna stay away from that one. So let's go directly to
us plant closures political and economic in nature. Have there been any that are related to Crystal River? Okay, let me with it. In
Crystal River, the replacement steam generator job was bungled badly enough. That even by my standards, they kind of kept like, here's what would have needed to happen in Crystal River. The steam generators were needed to be replaced, right. And so the the plant decided to get it done by cutting a hole in its it's shield building, and it's a pressure dome. And they cut a hole and it D tensed the knit tightly knit network of rebar that make up the really strong tensile strength, the strength against expansion, shall we say, if you have a steam leak or a pressure problem in the reactor, that dome is there to catch the steam as it expands. And it needs to be strong enough to withstand the inflation forces, shall we say? They cut that in such a way that it would no longer be secure. And you kind of have to like remit and then reset the Congress like you would basically need to cut
the poor new dome.
Yeah, and make some kind of link between the new one and it they that was a bad error. Was it so bad that if you it wasn't a national priority, you couldn't repair it? I don't know. Or maybe you build an identical structure next door and import all the parts, you know, just that was pretty bad. And that was 2013 I think and it's just a it would have been it would have been very difficult to recover from that.
Okay. Okay. reasonably parts, though?
No, I mean, the most severe and extreme problem we've had with the primary circuit that is the reactor pressure vessel, and it still has been at Davis Bessie in Ohio where, yeah, not have time to go into a fully but basically some acidic water was eating away at the the type of steel that can't shouldn't come into contact with that water and it was eating away and eating away and eating away until a giant chunk of metal was missing. And it was just the steel inner stainless steel liner that was holding in the pressure. So yeah, that was a sign that you can go very badly wrong without crashing and you can repair it. And it definitely led to differences in the way reactors are inspected. Right in America.
Right. I mean, I guess, you know, what we're saying is that, and this applies, obviously, beyond nuclear. If you wanted to have a wind turbine and make it immortal, you could just swap out the gearbox swap out, you know, everything on it, right. It could be a boat, who's the who's the Greek guy again, the Greek ship? Right, but But I guess the question is, you know, is it worth doing for X technology? And it sounds like your argument is that because of the special services that nuclear provides, and because of the the economic, the economic benefit of keeping nuclear around, it makes sense for this technology
comes down to what people want, you know, I think we should end with a slight attack on some large powerful group, right? Isn't that the way to end? Nice Christmas episode. So Google has been repeatedly approached for help in getting long term energy contracts from nuclear plants that are about to go out of business, and shut down for right. And Google says, well, we understand the importance of 24 hour electricity 365. But you know, we just can't do nuclear, because that's, that's not adding enough energy, we're, you know, just saving a plant is an additive, Google has just come out, and they've signed a big deal to buy electricity in Germany, for wind turbines that are so old, that they're losing their subsidy and the subsidies The only thing like the taxpayer subsidy was ratepayer, I guess was now at taxpayer two, was the only thing keeping these wind turbines going. And now these tech companies are coming out and saying, no, no, it'll it counts as additive if the wind turbine was gonna go offline, but then we save it, as it loses its subsidy, which makes you realize, oh, so even even though the wind turbine is the opposite of 24 365, right, it's not like that, even though the wind turbine is the very opposite of that kind of structure that matches your constant demand. It counts if it's going off line, as long as it's not a nuclear plant that actually provides you what you need. Got it. So really, that kind of that kind of reveals the game. The people who want the good things that come from nuclear energy in the end will come around to supporting the continued operation of nuclear energy. Those who claim to but really they just hate people. We're not going to get him convinced on saving nuclear plants. We're going to improve 111 funeral at a time as the famous what what physicist said that about the advance of physics anyway, or we're going to proceed by people not listening to the fakers and liars who have have bought nuclear since it was new. And now say now that it's already there. We should make sure it dies. We just have to work around it.
Alright, Mark, it's a pleasure having you back for the 10th iteration. I think we might be talking about Amory Levin's next time we meet up
Nick Levin's as we can call him Yeah, yeah, we should. He's an interesting guy and our in our in my ending there hinted at the type of person who made their fortune attacking nuclear right when it was needed to be built most to eliminate both climate change, the worst climate change impacts and the catastrophe we're seeing this winter. And now that the catastrophes unfolding, they still can't update their views. Yeah, so we'll talk about Amery Levin's the worst moustache and energy
Alright, market pleasure is always meant
for me to Chris.
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