April 21, 2005
Cost Estimates For New Nuclear Power Plants

Elizabeth King and Eric McErlain of NEI Nuclear Notes blog have a post comparing the cost of new nuclear power plants to other types of electric power plants. (note: O&M means Operations and Maintenance)

The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), an agency within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently published a 2005 update to their “Projected Costs of Generating Electricity” series. The study provides some interesting perspective on some ongoing discussions posted on FuturePundit and Disinterested Party regarding the costs of generating electricity using nuclear power versus other technologies.

The NEA/IEA study uses the levelized lifetime cost approach to compare generating costs for the future. This approach looks at generation costs over the plant economic lifetime, while taking into account the time value of money; that is, money spent yesterday or tomorrow does not have the same value as money spent today. Levelized costs are comprised of all components of capital, Operations and Maintainence (O&M) and fuel costs that would influence a utility’s choice of generation options, including construction, refurbishment and decommissioning, where applicable.

The study finds that at a 5% discount rate, levelized costs for nuclear range between $21 and $31 per MWh (2.1 to 3.1 cents per KWh), with investment costs representing 50% of total cost on average, while O&M and fuel represent around 30% and 20%, respectively. For gas-fired plants, the study finds levelized costs ranging from $37 to $60 per MWh (3.7 to 6 cents per KWh), with investment costs accounting for less than 15% of total costs, O&M accounting for less than 10%, and fuel costs accounting for nearly 80% of total costs, on average. The study finds levelized costs for coal-fired plants ranging between $25 and $50 per MWh (2.5 to 5 cents per KWh). Investment costs for coal plants account for just over a third of total costs, while O&M and fuel account for around 20% and 45%, respectively.

If you are wondering why oil is not mentioned oil is more expensive and is rarely used in electric power plants anymore.

Nuclear power is more sensitive to interest rate levels. But a nuclear builder can try to time financing for construction of a nuclear plant to periods when long term interest rates are low. Whereas a builder of coal or natural gas plants will have to live with fluctuations in fuel prices over the life of the plant. Nuclear plant construction could be made much more responsive to long term interest rates by shrinking time spent in the regulatory approval and construction stages. Uranium fuel costs also fluctuate considerably but count for a much smaller percentage of total costs of a nuclear plant.

The costs above are production costs for electricity leaving an electric plant. The physical transmission system and electric losses due to resistance in the transmission both add additional costs as do billing and customer service. Still, the price of new nuclear power plant electricity would be about a third the average American retail price for electricity.

Keep in mind that the figures we quote here don't reflect retail electricity rates, which also include transmission costs.

According to the most recent data from the Energy Information Administration, the average retail price of electricity for residential customers in the U.S. clocked in at 8.5 cents per KWh. However, in some areas of the country, that can be significantly higher, especially during periods of peak demand

Does anyone have a good source for the relative contributions of transmission and other downstream costs?

Coal generation costs could be raised by toughening environmental regulations on coal plant emissions. But technological advances in emissions control methods will eventually reduce those costs. Of course technological advances will reduce nuclear plant construction costs as well.

Natural gas prices have already risen substantially in the last few years and could rise further still, at least until planned liquified natural gas terminals come on line. Coal prices probably have lower upside pricing potential in the United States because US coal reserves are enormous. A long term increase in coal demand will be matched by a long term increase in capital deployed for extracting coal. Therefore the real competition to watch is between coal and nuclear.

With nearly 100 coal fired electric plants planned by industry in the United States and 5 times that number of coal plants planned in China coal is clearly in the lead to provide the next increase in electric power generation capacity. However, signs of serious industry consideration of new nuclear plant construction can be found.

Until such a time that solar power becomes competitive we need to ask ourselves a basic question: Would we prefer 100 more coal-fired electric generating plants or 100 more nuclear plants? The coal generators insist the costs of eliminating all the mercury, other heavy metals, particulates, oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, and other pollutants are too high and not worth the effort. This attitude and their ability to enshrine their views in policy make me much more well disposed toward the arguments coming from the nuclear power industry.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 April 21 01:32 PM  Energy Nuclear

Tdean said at April 22, 2005 3:30 AM:


Well isn't that interesting! "The study finds that at a 5% discount rate, levelized costs for nuclear range between $21 and $31 per MWh." Not bad. Unfortunately the standard in estimating financial cost for large industrial projects is a 10% discount rate. http://www.iea.org/bookshop/add.aspx?id=196 When you arbitrarily underestimate the major cost of producing something by half, the cost of that thing starts to look pretty good. But what do you expect from a nuclear industry mouthpiece like NEI. When you use the right number the investment costs go up to about 70% of the cost of nuclear energy and they are a bit higher than gas. Now if I arbitrarily reduced the cost of fuel for gas fired plants, I could make gas look like the only possible choice.

So, are you just a sap for this kind of industry manipulation of cost numbers or is something else going on here? You referred to the fascinating discussion of nuclear power costs on your blog but failed to mention the even more interesting one that we had:
http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/002710.html (Towards the end). A huge cost of doing business these days is liability insurance. What few people realize is that the nuclear industry has been given a massive, apparently perpetual subsidy from the federal government by making it virtually immune from liability for large scale nuclear disasters. http://reid.senate.gov/record2.cfm?id=180286 What would happen if you lived in an area where a nuclear power plant melted down and made your home and property uninhabitable, or caused cancer in your family? This little gift from the federal government says you'd be SOL (S__T OUTA LUCK). In other words, the Price-Anderson act means that the government has made it possible for a multi-billion dollar industry to destroy your home and kill your family, and you can't do anything about it. "Why would the government do such a thing?" you might ask. It's because, with the cost of a major nuclear disaster on the order of one trillion dollars, what insurance company is going to write them a policy? All the insurance companies in the world couldn't cover that kind of loss. So nuclear industry lobbyists paid for by the same folks who brought you NEI wrote up the Price-Anderson act and made sure that our wonderful congressmen knew that if they voted for it there would be a healthy check in the mail for their cooperation. The lobbyists knew that they didn't have to worry about the congressmen actually reading the bill they voted on or the American people even being aware it exists. So now nuclear is competitive with other forms of energy and huge corporations can continue to make lots of money, as long as we stay lucky, that is. But a 1985 study conducted by the NRC estimated that the probability of a large scale nuclear accident over a 20 year period was about 45%. http://www.emagazine.com/view/?901
Call it 50-50. Now with international terrorists gunning for these nuclear plants, what are the chances we will escape disaster in the next 20 years? Not too good. And you, the taxpayer and the citizen will be paying the true cost of nuclear power with your money and your life and the lives of your loved ones.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I do a lot of work in the petroleum business as a geophysicist and I might benefit if nuclear power plants are not built or dismantled, as they should be. But what about you Randall? Why is it that you fight like a cornered raccoon (and with about as much logic) when someone questions nuclear power. Do you make any money from the nuclear industry? Is your blog supported in any way by them? I just gotta wonder.

ndolphin said at April 22, 2005 6:44 AM:

One having strong opinions, and even being wrong on research (which I am not saying Mr.Parker is wrong in his numbers or not, I took statistics in college and know you can make numbers say almost anything, which applies to both of you) does not necessarily make you an industry lapdog. If your going to make accusations like that, you should do some research on the blogs sponsor and tag on some credibility to your mud slinging. I appreciate your differing view on the matter, and think you may even have some valid arguments, but your unsupported diatribe at the end makes me want to discount you as exactly what you are accusing Mr. Parker of being. So... Has the oil industry stopped paying you to post to blogs? Sounds silly doesnt it?

Engineer-Poet said at April 22, 2005 7:15 AM:

Primary Energy's article says the required investment in transmission and distribution (T&D) is greater than the cost of generators by a considerable margin ($1380/kW); see the graphic on page 7.


I do a lot of work in the petroleum business as a geophysicist and I might benefit if nuclear power plants are not built or dismantled, as they should be.
Strange that you think nuclear competes with petroleum.  I don't believe it does... yet.  But the depletion of petroleum and consequent rising prices are going to lead to substitution of other energy sources whether nuclear goes forward or not.

John said at April 22, 2005 8:09 AM:

Tdean says: a nuclear plant accident could "destroy your home and kill your family." Poppycock! Nuclear power plants are safe.
Note that a refinery explosion at Texas City in early April killed 13 people. An accident at a natural gas liquefaction facility in Algeria last year killed about 20 people. Over 1000 people die in coal mines in China every year.

How many people have died from properly designed and operated nuclear power plants (this excludes Russian pieces of junk, e.g. Chernobyl)? Why, 4 people were killed at a nuc power plant in Japan in the past year, but they were killed by a steam pipe rupture - not nuclear radiation. Two people were killed in Japan during nuclear fuel reprocessing about 3 years ago, but their company was violating several rules for handling enriched uranium. If terrorists attacked a U.S. nuclear plant, they could wreck the plant, but the radiation release would be minor and would not result in illness (let alone death) of anyone outside the plant. If a spent fuel storage facility at a plant were attacked, the result would kill the attackers and require the use of robots to clean up the spilled contaminants, but again, no one outside the plant would be irradiated. The calls to shut down nuc power plants are based on shrill rhetoric not supported by facts. U.S. nuclear plants are simply not a health threat to people outside the containment buildings.

Regarding massaging the numbers to make nuclear plant costs work out better than a fossil plant cost: well, yeah, that's what they're doing. But it is the point of studying something to run scenarios with varying natural gas prices, interest rates, and possible carbon emissions taxes or carbon trading costs. And, what a shock, the NEI chooses to publicize a scenario that supports nuclear power. Well duh!

When you clear away the marketing, many factors are combining to justify the scenarios that show nuclear being cost-competitive: high natural gas and oil prices, restrictions on coal emissions and requirements to install more and more expensive coal emissions controls, and the fact that Japanese and Chinese nuclear plant construction experience is showing that plants can be built on time and on budget. The bottom line is that nuclear plants in the U.S. are being operated safely, efficiently, and cost-effectively.

Frankly, no one but an eco-extremist is going to moderate his energy usage according to the whims of the sunshine or wind (Solar power? That's a pipe dream! - Homer Simpson speaking the TRUTH). So, we have to make more electricity from the cleanest source that makes economic sense. That could very well be nuclear power in the U.S. And regarding spent fuel - it should not be put in tunnels, it should be reprocessed (like in France, the UK, China, and Japan) to make more electricity. The high level waste that can't be reprocessed is all that should be put in long-term storage.

Full disclosure: I am a nuclear power supporter and engineer working on nuclear plants.

Jim said at April 22, 2005 9:21 AM:

wind power is safe, incremental, and cost-competitive. clearly it can't solve the whole country's energy problems, but it shouldn't be neglected. ignoring wind for the great plains would be akin to ingoring hydro power at niagra.

full disclosure - i'm an engineer who benefits from no particular energy source.

toot said at April 22, 2005 10:43 AM:

I wonder how much of the insurance problem for nuclear power plants derives from the insurers using worst case estimates in the face of the uncertainties arising from the small experiential base that is available regarding nuclear accidents. Competing energy sources are not free of hidden costs, either. For example, by continuing our dependence upon imported oil, we empower with cash people who wish us ill and who work actively to subvert our way of life. I think that energy independence is a goal worth accepting some risk to attain, because the alternative has penalties that seem almost certain.

Tdean said at April 22, 2005 11:45 AM:


"So... Has the oil industry stopped paying you to post to blogs? Sounds silly doesnt it?"

Posting to blogs - maybe. But Randall is starting, managing and maintaining a number of blogs, which has to take a lot of time. I am just asking. He could be an independently wealthy idealogue. But do you not realize that industries and idealogical think tanks fund all sorts of blogs directly and indirectly? The NEI blog is an industry blog, obviously. But I should have mentioned, I am not getting paid to post to blogs and I am not particularly interested in starting one. Still waiting for the answer from Randall.

Say what you will about statistics, but using a 5% discount rate is a pretty obvious attempt to low-ball nuclear cost since financing these capital intensive monsters is by far the largest component of cost. Unless you also include the liability cost, which is simply passed on to the public in the form of massive uninsured risk. But I agree fully. Beware of strangers bearing statistics. I hope this discussion prompts you to do your own research and report back. That's the idea. Don't blithely accept statistics from a multi-billion dollar industry that strongly support their agenda as Randall seems to do.

Tdean said at April 22, 2005 12:21 PM:

Dear John,

"Poppycock! Nuclear power plants are safe."

Poppycock? Good to have someone from the greatest generation! And we certainly need more engineers. Anyhow, safety is relative. I absolutely agree that nuclear is certainly one of the safest forms of energy, as long as it works within specifications. The only part that is risky is when it melts down. That is a low risk event under normal operating conditions to be sure, but it is also a risk of a huge magnitude. It is very hard to estimate risks of failure in complex systems especially when the failure rate is very small, as you know. The very good safety record of nuclear plants makes it quite reasonable to argue that the risk is negligible. But it is my contention that when you have terrorists who can use sophisticated techniques including nuclear weapons and precision guided hard penetrators to attack large pressurized water reactors, the risk becomes very unacceptable.

So, as an engineer, what do you think would happen if a 2000 pound, arrow shaped, dense penetrator travelling at mach 2+ (I've actually done the aerodynamic simulations that support this number) after having been dropped from a private jet at 30,000 feet, strikes the containment dome and then hits the pressure vessel of a pressurized boiling water reactor? Do you think you'd hang around there? This would be a bit beyond the design spects for that reactor, no? And unfortunately that scenario could be achieved almost certainly with off the shelf items for less than a million dollars, not including the cost of the jet. Since I've actually witnessed jets of this type penetrating our border with Mexico (probably smuggling cocaine on behalf of the terrorist organization known as FARC) I know it is a very reasonable scenario. I have also talked with government experts at Los Alamos and other places, who have acknowledged the viability of that sort of attack. So I would say that nuclear reactors are safe, unless...

And I do appreciate your candid assessment of the manipulation of the cost numbers in Randall's root article.

Joe said at April 22, 2005 1:07 PM:


Minor comment from the peanut gallery...

I'm having a hard time comming up with an idea of how a "terrorist" group could come up with a mach 2+ penetrator that fits your descriptions...

Can you expand on this????

Ken said at April 22, 2005 1:26 PM:

Silly me. I thought the site was about cost and risk. I see it concerns the end of the world.

To those concerned about 2000# devices dropped from jets. Join me!

I propose we be rid of all dams. When they fail the resulting floods are deadly. Also, nuclear naval ships, all missile silos, any institution where deadly organisms are studied. Chemical storage facilities must go. We must ban glaciers and level mountains which may slide, build nothing where any earthquake can possibly occur, lakes where people may drown, forbid icebergs from breaking off Antartica. The sun may not flare nor asteroid menace.

A disaster will follow human activity. Until a magic wand is available man must worry. Do not assess the worlds risks and proceed. Stop! Wear a nerve gas mask, especially in subways.

We have had many horrible events, some accidental and some intended: ships, planes, the WTC, Chernobyl (sp), famine due to poor planning and due to nature. Let all renounce ships, planes, buildings, power generation, and agriculture!

Denounce the evil sage who said "Those who will face danger die too young. Those who will not never live."

Tdean said at April 22, 2005 1:27 PM:


Sure, but briefly. Got work to do...

The mach 2+ part comes primarily from gravity, a very long skinny profile and high density. Like steel. It is a pretty big target that doesn't move. Calculating a drop point that would get you to within a couple hundred meters of the target is no problem with GPS or other methods that I don't need to go into. Precision terminal guidance can be done using vanes or a terminal reaction (rocket) system that is not as hard as you might think. Precision guidance has been around since WWII and there is plenty written about it. As I noted elsewhere on this blog, we came up with a new precision guided penetrator that would be very effective against a reactor during the first gulf war in about a month and for less than a million dollars. A 2000 pounder is considerably smaller than this one, but plenty big enough to do the job. The technology is out there and you and I could probably buy virtually everything we need online.

As the penetrator passed through the pressure vessel, the fuel assemblies would be shattered, all safety systems breached and the fuel would pile up at the bottom of the vessel or onto the containment building floor if the penetrator passed completely through. I don't think I need to describe what would happen next. The public needs to be aware of these threats as we talk about re-energizing the nuclear industry.

arbitraryaardvark said at April 22, 2005 1:36 PM:

I've been having trouble finding a good cost curve for photovoltaics.
For reasons that aren't clear to me, moore's law has not applied as directly to solar cells as to computer chips. Some of the current claims about thin-film mass-produced chips just around the corner, seem to be vaporware. Still, if you are looking at the economic viability of a nuke, it makes sense to look at the expected price of competing sources over the projected life of the project. A nuke is a bit like a computer - today's state of the art ten years from now is obsolete and either a collector's item or a disposal hassle.
I can't convince my mom to get rid of her ten-year old mac. Building nukes now runs into the same sort of problem.
The last place to site a nuke is in the united states. In the old days, every other dollar of nuke construction went to the lawyers. (I studied nuclear engineering in law school.)
Put it on a small poor island to limit the liability, and produce hydrogen or build a superconducting cable to the grid.
Similarly, I don't know why somebody isn't manufacturing wind turbines in india - doing so should cut the costs by about 1/3.
In the old days, nukes were dinosaurs, big and slow. If it takes 5 years to build a nuke, assuming you start tomorrow, which will be obsolete in ten years, that gives you 5 years to recover your costs - do those numbers still work?
I have heard that the newer japanese-designed micronukes can be built quicker.
It's important to remember that the first generation of nukes were built in a regulated cost-plus economic model, and were never designed to compete in the marketplace.
I was anti-nuke during the 70's thru 90s, while too many libertarians were kneejerk pro-nuke. I continue to have those biases, but recognize my views may be outdated by now.
Nukes don't exist in a vaccuum (well, except those that do) - nukes for electricity were a byproduct of nukes for warfare by governments. So security costs are part of the picture, because you have to keep track of who you are enabling to do what with the new technology.
I'm not opposed to knowing more abou tthe costs and risks and benefit of new nukes, and their alternatives. I've just seen too many over-simplified models over the years not to have some scepticsm.

Randall Parker said at April 22, 2005 2:53 PM:


Moore's Law hasn't applied to photovoltaics because Moore's Law works by making transistors smaller. More transisitors go on the same area of silicon. Well, you can't make progressively more light hit the same area of silicon to produce more power from the same area.

In fact, the order of magnitude or so increase in silicon crystal prices in the last few years s as a result of growing semiconductor demand is making photovoltaics more expensive and the photovoltaics makers have been releasing statements to this effect. Saw an article about this from Reuters a couple of weeks ago.

To make photovoltaics cheaper we need to shift to cheaper materials. That is going to happen with the silicon crystals for photovoltaics in a few years which, when new plants are ramped up, will be made at lower cost to less pure standards. But that drop in price is not going to be enough to make photovoltaics competitive. We need a lot more research into photchemistry with lots of other materials that could be made more cheaply. Carbon nanotubes leap to mind. Even though nanotubes are expensive to make now that will not always be the case according to some accounts I've read.

Randall Parker said at April 22, 2005 3:05 PM:


I no longer read TC Dean and so I don't know what he's saying. He is so quick to sink to the level of personal insults. While I've stooped to exchanging insults with him a few times I do not write this blog in order to attract obnoxious jerks who like to exchange insults. So I decided not to read him. Takes away the temptation to reply.

But I'm guessing from your post he's back on penetrator bombs. Well, yes, you are right. Dams are a big problem if we assume penetrator bombs. I've seen reports in the past on how many people could die if an earthquake burst this or that dam. Ever seen that History Channel documentary on the British attack on the German dams in WWII? Imagine what better bombing technology could accomplish on bigger dams.

But there are plenty of ways to kill lots of people with bombs. A recently leaked US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report put the death toll from a chlorine tank explosion at 17,500. Imagine a more concerted effort to blow up many chlorine tanks. I bet a 6 figure death toll could be achieved.

Or how about an attack on an LNG tanker when it is near a populated area? Picture tens of thousands incinerated in a huge cloud blast.

The DHS is also worried about chemical attacks. These could be done by airplane or truck. Again, given enough talent and resources to carry out the attack tens or hundreds of thousands could be killed.

Ken said at April 22, 2005 3:39 PM:

Thanks Randall. You thought of several more good examples of 2000# triggered disasters in the making. And goodness knows what can be done with nanotubes.

I don't have the skills or time to analyze detailed engineering costs. But I want to support those who can against those who predict that every seemingly sensible change must be disasterous.

Enough of philosophy. I hope we stay with engineering and science argument - this site has been so good.

Joseph said at April 22, 2005 7:10 PM:

Yes all the disaster scenarios listed could happen. The penetrator attack on a nuclear power plant would be a low probability though. First you could assemble the material in some out of the way location, perhaps even find a forging facility to make the penetrator but... First some of that material is moderately unique, it would leave a trackable trail. Second simply casting a steel penetrator is not going to do. As an example the special penetrator used for command center destruction was created from decommisioned 8" howitzer gun tubes (the weapon itself had been phased out of the military). This was due to the extreme metallurgical properties of those tubes. They were reliable penetrators. You try to slam normal steel into a thick concrete barrier it will deform with a high probability of not penetrating. I won't even bother mentioning how difficult getting control systems with slaved control surfaces for such a weapon would be or how difficult to steal or write the sofrware for the terminal guidance system for either a gps (least reliable due to the larger POE) or laser guidance system interface (this would create even more red flag indicator potential since you don't "just build" a gyro stabalized laser target designator for a plane from the half price sales bench at the electronics store. I could also go on about the flight profile needed to drop one of these puppies (military classified) and how would they aquire the aim points for the containment vessel (allso classified) to insure success.

For such a scenario to be really viable you almost have to have a first world government in support. This isn't something you put together in someones basement over the weekend.

Any terrorist attack would probably go for lower input higher return target. While destroying a nuclear facility might be big propaganda so would taking out an LNG tanker in a populate area. Bluntly the only real defense is an active offense.

Tdean said at April 22, 2005 8:54 PM:

To quote the Church Lady: Now isn't that special! Poor Randal "Mr. Sensitive" Parker is just so torn up by my terrible insults that he can't bear to read my viscious attacks on his sacred character. Like I haven't heard that one before. Now he has called me obnoxious, rude, dishonest, hypocritical when I have called him on his BS. But you know what? I don't care what what parker thinks. I will call a spade a spade and if someone is showing a lack of honesty or integrity, that is what I will say. It just looks a little convenient that when he gets caught dead with his pants down passing on crude attempts to lowball nuclear power costs and gets a direct but very polite question about possible conflicts of interest, well his poor bruised ego won't let him answer. Boo-hoo!

Ken, It might very well be reasonable to question the risk weighted cost/benefit ratios of dams, genetic engineering, chemical facilities... but we have been talkiing about costs of nuclear energy and risk is a component of cost. So if you have nothing pertinent to contribute, you can cut the cuteness. The simple question to consider is: if a single really bad event destroys more value in lives and property than the entire industry has created in it's history, is that a viable industry? Even if that sort of catastrophe is rare it is probably still too dangerous. And that is the unique thing about nuclear power; it has the potential to make a state sized chunk of land un-inhabitable for a very long time. Now I realize that sounds pretty far fetched. It would be reasonable to say "Well, Chernobyl wasn't so bad and and that's as bad as it gets." Unfortunately it isn't. While it is true that the design of the Chernobyl reactor was very unstable, there was a good aspect to it in that it's tons of fuel were distributed amoungst tens of tons of graphite moderator blocks that, while they did burn, they kept nearly all the fuel from melting down. Only about two percent of the fuel in the Chernobyl reactor melted and fell into the bottom of the reactor building. In a pressurized water reactor, all that fuel is piled quite tightly into a sausage shaped pressure vessel. If that is suddenly compromised by say a big damn chunk of metal passing through it, that fuel is going to be smashed to powder and go critical in big white hot ball melting it's way through everything until it hits the water table, where it will take residence, producing a miniature, highly radioactive version of Yellowstone National Park. Huge steam explosions then blast large quantities of enriched uranium, plutonium, iodine, etc.into the air and the winds spread them 360 degrees around the compass. And this amazing phenomenon could go on for years and leave a radioactive scar on the land that you could see a billion years from now. We have not seen anything like this, but we really could.
http://www.chemistrydaily.com/chemistry/Steam_explosion I maintain that if you can prevent a disaster like this, it is a good thing to do. You may say "Damn the risks, let's do great macho things." I say risk your own life, not the lives of my family. You can take up skydiving but I am not going to allow a multibillion dollar corporation to make profits by risking my life, family and property.

Tdean said at April 22, 2005 9:58 PM:


You sound pretty knowledgeable about weapons systems, but I strongly disagree that there is some sort of magic involved in designing a viable penetrator to do the job. First, why would you need to forge the metal when you can get round stock of about any type of high-strength steel just about anywhere in the world? All you really need is a large lathe, which are found just about anywhere. I'm not going into the details of what sort of systems you could use to provide the terminal guidance signals, but a system that would get you an error of about a foot is not that difficult to do. "Flight profiles"? How about straight and level just like a B-17? We're talking newtonian physics here. You just need to know where you are and how fast you are going in what direction, plus a wind number and it is going to hit based on that. You might ask is 2000 lbs big enough but here's a nice little thing about a 250 lb penetrator that can go through three feet of reinforced concrete:
bottom line: you are way overblowing the difficulties of dropping a piece of steel on a target in an age of ubiquitous electronics and computer power. The technology to design and build a precision guidance system can be found all over the world and for a price I don't think a determined terrorist would have a problem finding some technical assistence in the former Soviet states.

"Any terrorist attack would probably go for lower input higher return target. " I would say that creating a trillion dollars worth of damage for a million or so is a pretty fine return, and we know for sure that Osama feels that way too.

Joseph said at April 22, 2005 11:15 PM:

Apologies to all in advance for going way off subject.


First off normal high strenth steel doesn't suffice for a penetrator. Metallurgical requirements for a penatrator are at odds for normal steel usage. Prime example, despite the long history, precense of engineers and skilled workers the Soviets could not reliably mass produce tungsten long rod anti-armor penetrators. Reference can be found to this if you research the reasons for their deployment of the cobra cannon fired guided missle for their T64/T82 series MBT's. Yes you could probably sling regulare steel at a target but odds are even it will fail due to deformation during penetration. Deformation will determine if the projectile penetrate decively, simply makes a hole with no further damage or fails to penetrate and even deflects. That's one reason depleted uranium is used for kinetic AT ammo. Instead of deforming it simply ablates retaining it's profile as it bores in. I won't comment on your example of the 250lb object, there's concrete and then there's concrete. A .50 calibre round will punch through a foot of one type and then be deflected by 4 inches of another type.

If you can find a guided munition with only a one foot, real life, POE (probability of error) then you need to go to DARPA right now and start collecting cash. Top of the line GPS is listed as 13-35 foot with the practical error being closer to the extreme. I can attest personnaly that NO laser guided system is better than 2 foot POE, and that's from a stationary lasing position on a stationary target at 2k range under ideal weather with the tube launched munition flying at a previously registered point target. Under ideal conditions arial systems are listed at 3-6 ft POE at a 87% effective rate. Now that's all with fielded, cutting edge equipment and top line expert pilots. You are not going to find these on the black market, hell the Chinese are still trying to get their hands on such items for reverse engineering.

Depending on the weight, shape and glide characteristics of the projectile the flight profile will vary wildly. You are not going to know what the profile is unless you do detailed computer modeling and numerouse real world drops. The glide characteristics will require a very precise elevation, speed, angle of decent and release point in relation to target to have a chance at ahering to the glide line needed to hit the target. Then of course you have to have instumentation to compensate for current conditions. An example, to hit target it may require a speed of 600 knots at 12k feet above surface with a decent angle, for the aircraft, of 18 degrees with a minimum time of 6 seconds for the tracking head to aquire the designation prior to the min elevation. Then the operator has to be skilled enough to keep the system on track (his class 4 preferably 5 laser with multi gyroscopic stabalization) while his pilot has to maintane the civilian aircraft in proper flight profile for a noticeable length of time. Yes there are some military systems that should automatically keep the laser roughly on target but those are cutting edge and highly restricted technologies.

This brings up the last point. Training. First world airforces do it with the best equipment, intensely trained, dedicated and very experienced pilots. This is not something that a guy going to a Florida civil flight school for a few months will pickup. Heck it's easy enough to mess up when using a ground designator the first time, controlling breathing, maintaning concentration. Now picture that in an aircraft several miles from target in turbulent air even with the best military equipment. It would be even worse with the pilot trying to perform the aiming and trying to fly.

As I said earlier, it could be done but you would more or less require a support first world government to do it. What I'm trying to say is that yeah it's possible but really unlikely that any terrorist organization could pull it off. Their best chance would be to aquire a primary attack aircraft with lantern pod, trained pilots and munitions. Doing it on the cheap is fairly unlikely.

I'm sorry for the long rant but this is one of those chain yankers for me. Just like the tabloids going on about a possible man-portable nuke lost during the 80's in Russian being used today. That thing would have been expensive junk over a decade ago due to lack of depot level maintanence.

Tdean said at April 23, 2005 2:11 AM:


Just to clarify, I wasn't actually talking about 1 foot POE for the penetrator impact but for the position measurement. Sorry that wasn't clear. And I'm not talking about a laser designator system. That isn't necessary for a fixed target. You don't need to do any dodging and weaving to hit a nuclear reactor. It isn't protected and it isn't going anywhere. So what special flight training is necessary? We're not talking Iraq or North Korea here. Conventional military thinking isn't effective against terrorism. But the pilots I saw flying wingtip to wingtip through the mountains of South Texas didn't look like slouches to me in any case. You do have the military buzzwords down though.

Invisible scientist said at April 23, 2005 4:46 AM:

Let us consider the latest improved versions of the reactors.

1) The Pebble Bed reactor, which is terrorism-proof, and (even incompetent operator-proof, which is even more important). The only problem with this design is that it is not yet a breeder reactor, and so it is going to be as fuel inefficient as the latest pressurized water reactors, since only 0.7 % of the mined uranium is the fissile isotope U-235. But if the latest Pebble Bed reactors can be built in such a way that they will create a lot of plutonium waste, then this nuclear waste can be sent to a reprocessing plant, so that the resulting plutonium can be blended with the future fuel, then the uranium fuel efficiency might be increased up to 1,000 % even for the Pebble Bed.

2) I am sure the future breeder reactors can be made meltdown proof, such as ways of separating the fuel rods more efficiently, or using molten radioactive salts that are sparsely circulating in the reactor, which would also be meltdown-proof, and it would not release much radioactivity if it were exposed when the reactor is destroyed. This was one of the original versions of the Integral Fast Reactor, which can re-process its own nuclear waste inside the reactor, and burn this waste as its own fuel.

The only problem is that more money and effort is needed to commercialize the latest reactor designs, and we are now stuck with the pressurized water reactor designs, which are still vulnerable to terrorism, but the latest versions of the latter water based reactors are more uranium fuel efficient than the older reactors.

In any case, if there is a national decision to spend $100 billion per year (1 % of the GDP) on nuclear developments, the energy issue would be resolved and everyone would have an electric car in 15 years.

Penaut gallery Joe again said at April 23, 2005 7:28 AM:

Joe again:

I am going to take Tdean words at face value and agree with a lot of them. As far as how to penetrate a PW reactor and have an eventual meltdown.

It could happpen.

But I think that the other Joe has addressed my real concerns, the feasability of production of such a penetrator, and the attachment to a vehicle that could deliver it seems to be miniscule. I dont think the average "terrorsit" could do it.

But it is a very interesting discussion.

Tdean said at April 23, 2005 12:39 PM:

Invisible Scientist,

I agree that the pebble bed reactor is an interesting technology with a high likelihood of greatly enhancing safety. I have seen some concern that if they are exposed to an oxidizing atmosphere and fractured that the graphite in some designs would burn fiercely. That is still a far smaller problem than a pressurized water reactor.

The breeder designs are also very high potential and they could be designed in ways that make them hard targets.

But I think we still have to consider the wisdom, in general terms, of concentrating huge quantities of radioactive isotopes that will always be subject to nuclear attack. It is well known that both the US and USSR targeted each other's power reactors during the cold war, and vaporizing a large number of nuclear cores would have semi-permanently contaminated large percentages of both countries. Putting commercial reactors in-ultra hard enclosures deep underground would almost certainly eliminate them from economic viability.

I fully support national spending on the general area of energy independence and sustainability. There are some very promising technologies in high efficiency combustion engines that could be brought to commercial viability much faster in my opinion, which when combined with bio-fuel development could eliminate our oil imports. I urge you to check out this website: http://www.starrotor.com/indexflash.htm

I have talked to the principals of this company and the are an amazing engineering team. Even if they are Aggies.

Bob Badour said at April 23, 2005 12:41 PM:

With all due respect, TDean, your brazen lack of intelligence or tact underwhelms me. I don't know where you found the nice round figure of 10%, but it sounds to me like you pulled it right out of your rectum.

Whether one chooses a discount rate on the basis of a risk-free discounter or on the basis of one's cost of money, I note that 30 year US Treasuries currently trade around 4.5% and 20 year corporate bonds trade around 5.5%

Based on actual facts and sound logic, instead of wild assertions and histrionic handwaving, I find a 5% or 6% discounter appropriate for costing a quasi-governmental large-scale capital investment. In 1987 I would find 5% or 6% ridiculous, but back then I thought the guy from A Flock of Seagulls had cool hair.

As for your insinuations, Randall does not work in the energy industry. And unlike you, he does not shill for a specific financial or economic interest. I have known Randall for over a decade, and he is a concerned, highly articulate, very analytical person who chooses to conduct many hours of uncompensated research and analysis to meet other intelligent people and to engage them in satisfying discussion--all with the off-chance benefit of perhaps affecting the thoughts of some policy maker or person of influence.

It doesn't surprise me one bit that Randall has you consigned to his twit filter. Perhaps he could petition the folks at MT to provide a twit filter feature we all could use?

Tdean said at April 23, 2005 1:18 PM:


Of course you needn't take my words at face value. I encourage you to research things for yourself and learn both sides of the argument and that is why I am here. But there are some very powerful forces at work to ensure that the public not understand the real issues at work in the debate about massively subsidizing dangerous types of nuclear power. Remember that GE, a major producer of turbines and other reactor components, owns NBC. Are they really going to feel completely free to bring up these safety issues? And I have to be frank: the security issues associated with reactor safety with regard to terrorist attack cannot even be discussed by NRC officials or engineers in nuclear facilities or academic institutions. There is a valid reason for that, but somehow the public must become aware of the real risks and the real issues if the interests of the public are to be protected as we make these huge decisions affecting our nation's future.

"I don't think the average "terrorist" could do it." The average terrorist couldn't pull off 9/11 either, but that small scale event should have taught us that we must plan for the extraordinary. We are in a long term war of civilization here and placing incredibly fat, high value targets out there with no effective defense is incredibly stupid.

Joseph said at April 23, 2005 1:42 PM:


You're missing the differences of the devices. A penetrator is an item with the arodynamics of a brick at best. Don't think of thin shelled normal bombs with their ballon shape. A 2k lb penetrator will look more like a long rod than a bomb. It will be very narrow in shape, extremely dense with very precise mass allotment along the length as a compromise between stability and penetration otherwise while it may glide in it may come in at a tilted angle which guarantees deflection. Control surfaces can't be to large or they inhibit terminal velocity. You're basically trying to create a low speed bullet relying on small control surfaces instead of spin with all that implies. I might add that a 2000lb penetrator is a bit weak, if memory serves they shoot for 4-6 ton range for good penetration.

As far as pilots. To carry this out with the speed and load carrying needed it has to be a jet. I'll use the example of 9/11. They pulled it off but just barely, review the films. Your observation of the civilian pilots in Texas doesn't really apply. Those were light private planes I'm sure with pilots who probably had many hundreds of hours of expereince. I don't think I'm insulting them by saying that they'd require a lot of train up with the appropriate aircraft and procedures to try running a free fall terminally guided munitions drop.

I could go on with another rant that would tick people off at me but I'll leave it. REally it's an impractical method unless the exceptions I listed in the earlier posts are achieved. Also it can be defended against. It would cost a pretty penny but there are ways to defend structures against penetrators. I have thought of a less improbable way for a suicide pilot in a large single or smaller multi engine aircraft to possibly split open a nuke pressure dome but it's for my private intellectual musings.

Tdean said at April 23, 2005 1:55 PM:


Now this is a good example of a viscious ad hominim attack in lieu of responding in a coherent fashion. I know you're a Randall groupie (Flock of Seagulls, too maybe?), but he's going to have to find the guts to defend himself if he wants to maintain any credibility. But I really could care less what he has to say. He's run away crying several times before when I kicked his ass in an honest debate, but always came back screaming insults and irrelevant nonsense. I can understand why he would be your hero.

I gave a reference to the 10% discount rate in my original post. In the oil business we always used a 15% discount rate, but that is a riskier business.

With regard to my intelligence - we'll let the world judge. But I didn't become a geophysicist, inventor and highly successful independant businessman by being stupid. So what are your qualifications, Big Guy? And in my college days I usually scored in the 99.9th percentile on standardized tests - even on my GRE's. So I consider the source when I receive an evaluation of my intelligence.

Looking forward to your reply. I enjoy shooting fish in a barrel.

Tdean said at April 23, 2005 2:12 PM:


With respect, I am not missing anything with regard to penetrators. You have missed reading my posts, apparently. I described the penetrator earlier in much the same terms as you: "The mach 2+ part comes primarily from gravity, a very long skinny profile and high density." So thanks for the instruction but I don't need it. I have thought of aspects that your military background may have caused you to miss. Attitude control with precision reaction (rocket) engines eliminates the need for control surfaces of any kind. And again, you are way overestimating the material strength necessary to penetrate a reactor. There is signifigant debate as to whether or not a turbine engine from a commercial jet would penetrate after passing through a containment structure at mach .9. A Tungsten steel arrow going at mach 2 would only slow down. The pressure vessel is only about six inches thick and it is not armor.

You are expending a lot of intellectual energy to keep your head buried in the sand.

Joseph said at April 23, 2005 4:26 PM:


Okay now you postulate a powered penetrator instead of a freefall. You have just added echelons of complication to the whole problem. I recommend you monitor the military developement periodicals such as Janes Defense to see the feasibility of the proposal. For such a speed of course freefall won't do it (hmm can someone remember their physics formula for the gravitational acceleration constant?) but yes it's concievable with a honking big booster to accelerate a one ton object to mach 2. Here's a hint though. When the airforce decided they needed a deeper penetrating bunker buster they went with a 6-8 ton hammer forged 8" gun tube packed with he and accepted all the problems entailed in using such a thing. The didn't even try to make a powered missle to fill that role simply becaues it would be a bear to develope. Ealier lessons learned back in the 80's when they tried to develope a hyper velocity kinetic penetrator for ground combat has left that field fairly stagnant. Now to my knowledge there's no fielded systems testing such a thing. Bluntly it's cheaper to just take an existing freefall penetrator and stick a .09 kt warhead on it. The closest thing I remember that could do the job of accelerating such a mass would be an old spartan booster from the 70's missle defense program. I might add that high velocity penetrators are a whole 'nother game and require even better metallurgical precision, reference my allusions of the Soviet problem, a very high percentage of their mass produced tungsten penetrators were splintering rather than penetrating when tested.

As far as the current structure of pressure domes for reactors I just don't know. That's restricted data nowdays. I do know it is very robust. Now if there was an appreciable threat from a penetrator it would cost a lot but could be negated. The main problem when developing armored vehicles is the limitations on space and weight. Without those limitations it's very easy to defeat penetrators since all that's required is to divert the axis of penetration. When you don't have to worry about space constraints designing to deflect is very simple. It could be retrofited onto existing plants at a stiff price and I believe implemented in new designs at a bearable cost. Lessons learned from mbt composite armor would easily transfer with far lower costs and less exotic materials to such a design. I might add my own idea for doing it would also be negated by such construction.

Really it would be far more practical for a terrorist group to smuggle in a modern mbt main gun with ammo, hide it on a remote hill near a plant and just start firing away at one spot hoping to finish before someone stopped them (would take a lot of rounds though and a damn good gunnery crew).

If I can't refute your theories with this then we need to drop it here and quit bothering the rest of the readers with OT trivia.

Jim said at April 23, 2005 4:40 PM:

tdean - you're acting like a jackass. nobody here knows each other (for the most part) and getting into stupid 'i've got a bigger intellectual dick' posturing is just irritating. you're probably lying/over-exaggerating about your competence based on how you deal with people. if you're really the genius you think you are, and your motive is to improve general awareness, then clearly you must recognize how poor of an approach you've taken. as forest gump would say 'stupid is as stupid does'.

regarding the penetrator argument, in particular the materials challenges, it's not that difficult. I can think of a number of commercial products that could be salvaged that are made of high strength steel besides gun tubes (i'll decline to point them out for the terrorists in the room) the biggest challenge would probably be the temperatures seen by the steel on descent. if 2k lbs of steel hit the concrete, I have little doubt that would penetrate it - in fact it probably wouldn't matter a hell of a lot what the material's properties were if it were that heavy, dense and fast. the reason why they use depleted uranium for penetrating tank armor is 1) density 2) deformation process upon striking the steel armor. the deformation mode of the penetrator wouldn't matter when hitting a material like concrete that's so susceptible to strain localization.

the guidance seems pretty tough to pull off. the simple newtonian equation tdean referred to, includes accounting for the effect of wind resisntance that isn't very straightforward.

Invisible Scientist - you're right about the pebble bed reactors and molten salt. I know one of the key limitations is the steel to contain the molten salt. It would probably cost less than the cost of invading Iraq to clear up all such technical hurdles.

finally, speaking of GE's energy business, you know what division kicked ass in their earnings report since my last comment - that's right, WIND!!

john said at April 23, 2005 6:07 PM:

"But I didn't become a geophysicist, inventor and highly successful independant businessman by being stupid."

good thing the GRE didn't have a spelling section

Tdean said at April 23, 2005 6:48 PM:


Now I know for sure you are talking over your head. Or through your butt is more like it. I have done the computations using a computer program that takes into account the shape, mass, fins (if used) air density, and the velocity of impact after 30,000 feet of freefall is over mach two when the aircraft speed is mach .8. And you can get that program on the internet, too: http://www.aerorocket.com/products/products.html If you could read and comprehend you would see that I was talking about the reaction engines primarily for attitude control and a few tweeks at the terminal phases would drop it straight down on target. It turns out that I know quite a lot about digital control systems and I certainly know that current sensors, actuators and electronics that can be obtained off the shelf are more than adequate to the task.

I would agree that it wouldn't be that difficult for terrorists to obtain or construct from scratch a hypervelocity gun to punch holes in reactors. There are any number of alternate "martyrdom" operations involving hijacked cargo planes that would do the trick as well as I think you were suggesting earlier. I also agree to drop the subject if you do by acknowledging that I can't prove that the penetrator would work without building and testing it, and that definitely ain't my intent.

Tdean said at April 23, 2005 7:05 PM:


"nobody here knows each other (for the most part) and getting into stupid 'i've got a bigger intellectual dick' posturing is just irritating."

I didn't start the ad hominim attacks but when my intelligence is impuned by an idiot I reserve the right to defend myself and I could give a sh_t whether you like it or not.

"the guidance seems pretty tough to pull off. the simple newtonian equation tdean referred to, includes accounting for the effect of wind resisntance that isn't very straightforward."

It's not that difficult either. Check out the ref in my previous post and you will be able to do it like a master if you can cough up about $30. I recommend it. But controlling a supersonic projectile is not a trivial thing, to be sure. But it also is definitely not impossible.

John, yes that is very compelling. I made a single letter replacement spelling error so I guess that means I'm retarded. If you can't come up with something just a little coherent and meaningful don't bother the rest of us who are trying to carry on a discussion. Run your spell checker on that one.

Joseph said at April 23, 2005 8:02 PM:


Since you decided to be insulting... Think whatever the hell you want. Your presumption of how easy it is to build a seaker/guidance/actuator system for a multi mach projectile (oh excuse me now you're going to use a jato directional girdle for guidance so now the projectile must spin in addition) is plain fantasy, I don't give a damn what degrees you claim to have. No I don't have the damn program that gives the terminal velocity of the jato rocket controlled steel slug that your terrorist is going to divebomb onto a target from 6 miles high (aprox 30k ft) at mach .8 from a civilian aircraft while trying to laser paint a small area of the target with his radioshack electronics pack and El337 wharz proggie. I don't know who the hell you're trying to fool but before spouting off with silly theories go put your hands on the actual equipment and use a bit of common sense instead of some bs and home coded proggies you got off the net.

And right back at you, I won't be bothered by an idiotic cretin either. Go pleasure yourself with a range wire wrapped fence post son.

Ken said at April 23, 2005 8:49 PM:

Having escaped any really nasty attack so far, I forfeit good sense by commenting again.

Why do we debate whether these bomb attacks can work? The Pentagon says they can penetrate 50+ feet of anything. That is good enough for me. Yes, their bomb weighs 20 tons. But who really doubts large fixed installations can be clobbered someday, somehow, by terrorists?

The effect of such an attack is much harder to know. A few reactor accidents tell us little because they were not bombed and the designs were different from what will be built in our future. We know from above ground testing that straight A-bombs did not permanently make land or the atmosphere unusable. Nor did H-bombs. But neither really had much material to spread around and test were made on calm days. TDean points out that Chernobyl was not a worst case. Actually it was the worst case. It was not the worst possible case.

Therefore if we decide about new plants (NP) on the basis of vulnerability and older design I doubt anyone in America will ever again approve them. I would not. But I would consider new NP designs because the old plants will exist for decades, terrorists will have those targets anyway. Which means any new NP does not increase terrorist risk unless they would somehow decline to attack anything older.

We are in a good position on NP. Several other countries are trying the new designs for us.

10% seems the accepted cost of capital. Insurance is an operating cost not capitalized, unless during construction. I also noticed a tendency to equate liability with damage.

Tdean said at April 23, 2005 9:00 PM:


Gee, all that nasty jargon spoutin cause I said your were talking through your butt? Well, all I will say is that mach 2+ is a good number for a penetrator and precision guidance is possible and terrorists are thinking of ways to destroy nuclear reactors. Now go take a pill.

Tdean said at April 23, 2005 9:06 PM:


I applaud your efforts at bringing it down a notch and I think your post is well-reasoned and contains several good points. I am just not clear on the difference between "worst case" and "worst possible case", but don't consider that a criticism or anything. Let's all get a good night's sleep.

Ken said at April 23, 2005 9:34 PM:

TDean. I meant CH is the worst case (we have available for study). The worst possible case would be the worst we can create a plausible scenario for.

I have alway thought the best protection from the air would be a second outer dome with reactive armor. It would break up anything soft like a kamikaze. And careful design of the reactive armour could do much to deflect a solid penetrator device.

Good features are simplicity, low cost of framework, and no disruption of operations. The reactive armour is trickier but still not too expensive. Sensors and computers could detect intrusion and sequence the explosives. Still at Mach 2 anything hardened and big will hurt big time. I think it is worth research.

Tdean said at April 24, 2005 3:03 PM:

I think that your post correctly points out that for any possible form of attack that might be contemplated, there is a technical means that can be called upon to reduce the threat probability acceptably close to zero. The problem is that each layer of defense reduces the economic viability of nuclear relative to other forms of power generation that cannot be attacked in a way that produces a catastrophe. The other alternatives have their own associated costs, but no single power plant has the unique potential for catastrophe. Examples:

1) An attack on a pressurized boiling water reactor could produce a meltdown with associated costs of a $trillion. Moving the reactor underground covered with concrete would effectively protect the reactor but possibly double or triple the capital costs, moving it out of economic viability.

2) A similar attack against a coal fired plant would destroy a turbine and possibly cause a localized fire, generating maybe a billion dollars of damage. But sometime in the future, society might decide that the greenhouse gases generated by the plant puts us at unacceptable risk to climate change catastrophes. These gases can be sequestered, but that would add significantly to the capital costs of the plant.

My point here is not that nuclear is unacceptable under any circumstances. My point is that the choices of which power technologies are utilized by a society entail costs and risks that are shared throughout that society and that we must do the best possible job at considering the risk part of the equation and honestly informing the public of the impacts of those risks so that a technically reasonable and just policy decision can be made. This is far from being done. Currently decisions are being made on the basis of information provided by industry to politicians with a campaign finance kicker to sweeten their argument. The environmentalist side is being represented, but with much less force (read cash). The technical aspects of the debate are daunting and propaganda generated on both sides of the arguments do little to inform the public in a reasonable manner. It is my opinion that there needs to be some form of control on the debate so that the public has a chance to make a well informed decision on their future. My suggestion would be that equal access to media on the industry side and the environmental side would be provided and a third, independent scientific/engineering council would analyze the information and arguments and provide assessments to the public. I think that we already have a viable structure in place in the form of the National Academy of Science. Then politicians would be required to make concise statements regarding their positions on the pertinent issues. In my opinion, it is very dangerous to make such decisions on the basis of market forces that do not properly include or consider in a reasonable way the true and complete costs of the possible mixes of power technology.

Ken said at April 24, 2005 5:24 PM:


Well, we aren't sticking very close to #. NP is a politcal issue anyway. And when politics prevail any # is like to be quite a load.

Righto about defenses. Each defensive ring does add cost. Palo Verde, said to be the largest NP in America, is 30 miles from me. It has no defense at all. Nada. Zippo. (My morning paper says the AZ legislature has just given the company guards permission to shoot if the site is attacked. Whoopee! I laugh, else I cry.)

So NPs exist. Most are very vulnerable. If we could use Yucca Mountain I would say take the expense and close them all, I will forego AC for a year or two even in Phoenix. But we simply stagnate on nuclear, we don't build more and at least have the power, we cannot decomission because politicans will not lead, we cannot use the best known storage because environmentalists paralyze even improvements.

We are stuck. So, I say toughen what we have. It is cheaper to add outer rings than to change the plumbing itself. As stated before, the terrorists lack means, not targets - so building a few more NP does not seem reckless.

Regarding scientific panels arbitrating these issues. I welcome something like it. The devil is, we already have gobs of such panels although they are not powerful. And the panels don't do a very good job.

I sense they are ineffectual because they are staffed with people who were great 20-30 years ago and now are department chairs, professional witnesses, parachute consultants, domesticated directors of corporations, or advisors to the UN about wording 18000+ page schemes to rebuild Africa, etc. In other words they could be doing great work but they are no longer working scientists and engineers. They have become talking heads focusing for 5 minutes, their multiple gigs accumulating to make them quite wealthy and comfortable.

I would rather have 10 randomly chosen, literate plumbers teamed with 10 randomly chosen engineers with brand new PHDs.

Hell, I would rather have EITHER the 10 engineers or the 10 plumbers. Just kidding! (but not entirely)

ps. i would like to see what happens when super-hard, sonic penetrators hit various structures. in which tests would they tumble, fragment, or simply make a deep small hole. i actually worked a little on reactor design 50 years ago - but not at a top technical level. and i was in Oak Ridge in 1945 listening to my dad talk atoms. he did the engineering then.

Joseph said at April 24, 2005 5:34 PM:


Above listed is the site for imformation on the GBU-28. This is the top line penetrator fielded for any miliatry force as of this time. Tests are normally conducted against generic reinforced concrete to provide a baseline. Postulate for yourselves whether any terrorist group without major support from a first world nation could produce and use such an item. Also please refrain from violating Mr. Newton's laws concerning how it would be used.

Ken said at April 24, 2005 6:37 PM:

re: www.fas.org.... thanks.

it was interesting. and seemed to be a first class effort. all i had ever seen were massive ballistic brutes. the $145K cost seems low. maybe they didn't have the time or training to spend money right.

could terrorists do it? maybe! guidance is tough to perfect w/o instrumented tests. or it used to be. if i was their technical advisor i would suggest trying something else.

no one ever mentions that precise ordinance can punch away in the same hole with sucessive missiles - as the doctor says "Bin, I have bad news, and bad news"

Tdean said at April 24, 2005 10:01 PM:

Ken & Joseph (if he's still reading my posts),

The GBU-28 was the weapon I had in mind at the start of the discussion. I thought it was heavier than that. Here's a nice piece about the general characteristics of the target:

http://www.aopa.org/whatsnew/newsitems/news02q1.html There is a nice graphic there courtesy of the folks at NEI that reveals that we have approximately a total of about seven feet of concrete and about eight inches of steel to deal with. I would agree that is a tall order for a penetrator but not impossible by any means. The biggest choke point is probably the likelihood that a significant rotational torque would be encountered passing through the containment structure and in the 50 feet or so before hitting the pressure vessel the missile would get into a skewed orientation. But since there is only 50 milliseconds or less for the rotation to occur I doubt it is a really big problem. I have also heard that the containment structure is considerably thinner on top; only about two feet thick. I certainly wouldn't disagree with the assertion of the article that general aviation aircraft are no real threat if used a la 9/11. But a business class jet could be used as a delivery vehicle with little modification.

The story of the GBU-28, which is now some 15 years old, does not assure me that it is impossible for a well funded terrorist organization to develop a penetrator. Just recall that the FARC is funded with billions in cocaine profits and Al Qaeda with opium. They have a lot of money and all the time in the world. The drug smuggling infrastructure into the States is the perfect means of taking care of the logistics of the operation.

Engineer-Poet said at April 25, 2005 8:13 PM:

Now you know why I've been largely ignoring nuclear power in the analyses on my blog.

That said, there is substantial potential for buried nukes in certain areas of the country.  Supposedly the helium-cooled pebble bed machines are built on-site from reinforced concrete, and so could be built underground.  The entire area around Detroit is on top of a thick layer of salt, which is partially mined out.  If the reactor is deep, its cooling water can be driven by thermosiphon and perhaps even used for domestic space heat.

If you are not just replacing the fuel (and carbon emissions) used for electric generation but also the fuel used to heat buildings, do the economics justify the expense of deep construction?  I'm too tired to start crunching numbers right now or I'd dig into it (no pun intended).

Bob Badour said at April 28, 2005 7:27 PM:


More than a little full of yourself, aren't you?

Philip Sargent said at July 13, 2005 3:05 AM:

Oxera have produced a new brief report on financing nuclear new build in the UK.

The conclusion is that it would be profitable, but not so profitable that some govt. guarantees would not be needed to improve the rate of return to competitive levels.

Report was published in June:

You will need to register (free, no email check) to download this.


marc dahlberg said at June 11, 2008 2:07 PM:

Sorry to disappoint all you pessimists but it does not require a nuclear physicist to build a structure that will withstand so pretty much anything a terrorist, even a well funded terrorist can come up with.
Ignoring our engineering capability - oh make that Europe's engineering capability, if you don't think US engineers are up to the task - from the above it appears you cannot possibly imagine the damage our dependence on Middle East crude will have for the economy.
It is strange, all I ever hear this side of the Ocean is: it cannot be done.

steven rowe said at February 20, 2009 1:53 PM:

we have a bigger problem with the clowens at NRC hired companys like www.rcscorporation.com to fill key jobs in cost and contruction of these nuclear plants like cost and bidding estimator jobs and more tec jobs. If we all are going to hirer base on color and sex and most all how we voted,well a pcs of conceret falling from the ceiling will be the last thing be keeping you up at night, I guess I'll be one more person backing the coal and oil companies now.....

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