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Confessions of a Nuclear Power Safety Expert
June 14, 2011 5:27 AM   Subscribe

Confessions of a Nuclear Power Safety Expert.
posted by - (76 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
*irradiates popcorn*
posted by pompomtom at 5:30 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


On the other hand, the chance of an earthquake and tsunami of the magnitude that hit Japan are quite remote, especially occurring in tandem, which makes for a tiny P. But the consequences — the C — of them imperiling a nuclear power plant are huge, leading to a much higher risk to society.
To be clear, the earthquake had already knocked out cooling functions at Daiichi before the tsunami hit.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:49 AM on June 14, 2011


"Nuclear today only generates about 12 percent of the developed world’s electricity. By instituting an energy efficiency program," Silvi suggests, "we could fill the gap caused by shutting them all down and put this malevolent genie back into the bottle."
That rather misses the point that a lot of us would like to create another very big gap by shutting down lots of fossil fueled power stations. Power stations that also present a massive risk to society.
It's odd that the article barely mentions the major reason many want to see more nuclear power - a peripheral mention of Kyoto doesn't really count.
posted by edd at 5:53 AM on June 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


From the article: the chance of an earthquake and tsunami of the magnitude that hit Japan are quite remote, especially occurring in tandem

That kind of jumped out at me.
posted by ryanrs at 5:57 AM on June 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Nuclear today only generates about 12 percent of the developed world’s electricity."

... or what, 78% in France? I'd like to see the French (or anyone) implement an energy efficiency programme with those sort of reductions. Silvi's argument is a possibility where the percentage of nuclear is low, but without much more energy trading (and cross-border infrastructure?) I can't see that it's a realistic proposition across the board. And since different countries would be having to make different levels of reductions, there would be all sorts of pricing issues for building the infrastructure and then trading energy between countries. And Edd's point gets magnified, because one of the main ways to replace nuclear power right now is still coal, before we even get into closing down existing fossil-fuel generation.
posted by dowcrag at 6:08 AM on June 14, 2011


> That kind of jumped out at me.

Sounds a bit like "The chance of a huge lightning strike right nearby and a huge thunder boom are remote, especially occurring in tandem." They're not, of course, independent events. Given that A has occurred, the likelihood of B shoots up pretty dramatically.
posted by jfuller at 6:14 AM on June 14, 2011


To be honest, it sounds like a lot of his qualms with nuclear power are derived from the utterly corrupt way industry and politics are done in Italy. Yeah, I imagine it is hard to guarantee the safe operation of the plants when the safety inspectors are all too happy to line their pockets. When studies into "what's in the river?" get shut down because a friend of the boss doesn't want that knowledge going public.
posted by explosion at 6:14 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


If my experiences with nuclear power were in the Italian energy business and dealing with post-Soviet nukes, I'd have grave doubts about atomic energy too.
posted by Panjandrum at 6:20 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


To be honest, it sounds like a lot of his qualms with nuclear power are derived from the utterly corrupt way industry and politics are done in Italy.

Funny. No one assumes the Japanese to be corrupt, yet they achieve the same poor results in construction, safety, and planning.
posted by three blind mice at 6:22 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


yes, I find those comments quite offensive. but anyway...
posted by - at 6:24 AM on June 14, 2011


From the linked article: “Our problem is that we don’t know what will happen on any scale of time. Such uncertainty is OK when dealing with train trips or dinner choices. But it becomes problematic when considering the possible spread of very dangerous material that will stay deadly for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”

This is the voice of sanity.

If my experiences with nuclear power were in the Italian energy business and dealing with post-Soviet nukes, I'd have grave doubts about atomic energy too.

How 'bout if your experiences with nuclear power involved living near Fukushima? Would that engender grave doubts as well?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:25 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Human history is full of madness, full of catastrophes. Imagine if we had nuclear reactors when we fought wars in the past.

Hard to disagree with him here - if an all-out war breaks out, nuclear power plants might become prime targets. The problem is, at the moment we need the nuclear energy to avoid the all out war when the oil runs out.

What are the benefits of such an effort, especially when you have opportunities to get electricity in many other ways?

No other ways are really comparable yet. Solar + something like Cambridge Crude and algae might someday become our main power sources, but we need nuclear as a stopgap.
posted by hat_eater at 6:31 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Funny. No one assumes the Japanese to be corrupt,

As a rule, the energy industry anywhere is corrupt.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:37 AM on June 14, 2011


As a rule, the energy industry anywhere is corrupt.

Fixed that for you.
posted by eriko at 6:40 AM on June 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Solar sounds beautiful but can't help feeling uneasy about the required battery storage infrastructure. I imagine that the mining processes required will be turning a bajillion acres of remote, wild country into SF horror landscapes. In a some limited aspecst, nuclear is in our own backyardsand that forces us to take a certain responsibility for it.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:48 AM on June 14, 2011


...that forces us to take a certain responsibility for it.

Who's the "us"? I mean, realistically? What "responsibility" could the residents (ordinary people) near Fukushima actually take, to assure their safety?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:51 AM on June 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Human history is full of madness, full of catastrophes. Imagine if we had nuclear reactors when we fought wars in the past.

If I understand right, 9/11 attackers flew over Indian Point plant serving NYC Metro area.

Of course, no one can predict terrorists using a fuel-loaded jet to attack a ground target..

.. or a once-in-a-hundred year earthquake.

.. or a once-in-a-thousand year tsunami.. or engineers turning off safety systems to run a test.
posted by rainy at 6:52 AM on June 14, 2011


Current nuclear technologies suck. Passive safety systems are better than active safety systems, which is what we have now, based on a futile 1950s dream of control and management.
posted by adipocere at 7:01 AM on June 14, 2011


bonobothegreat: Are you assuming that energy will be stored in chemical batteries? I wouldn't expect that to be terribly practical and I'd expect of the various technologies that might be used hydroelectric power seems most straightforward. That's not without its own environmental impact of course, but most people would probably consider it a fairly green solution.
posted by edd at 7:10 AM on June 14, 2011


From the article: the chance of an earthquake and tsunami of the magnitude that hit Japan are quite remote, especially occurring in tandem

That kind of jumped out at me.


It is easy to see where this might be folly, in retrospect. But on paper, when doing risk analysis, the chances ARE quite remote. Nigh impossible for almost all locations on the planet. It takes a combination of an area that is susceptible to earthquakes that is also near enough to an ocean to be at risk of a tsunami. And for the earthquake to occur in the right (wrong) location where a nuke plant would be affected by both.

For all I know, Fukushima is the ONLY plant in the world that even CAN be at risk of this double-whammy.

(The point remains, however, that it WAS at risk and people ought to have planned better.)

Current nuclear technologies suck. Passive safety systems are better than active safety systems, which is what we have now, based on a futile 1950s dream of control and management.

Agree, however, it is possible the new technologies only became possible because of the knowledge and experience gained from the older technologies.

If I was in charge, I'd probably put nuke plants in those bad areas onto big-ass barges. If bad weather looms, cut the cables and drive away. The ship would float harmlessly above any tsunamis, and be insulated from earthquakes. In the event of something Awful happening, just point the thing in the direction of a deep-sea trench and scuttle the fucker. That's got to be less harmful than what we are seeing now.
posted by gjc at 7:11 AM on June 14, 2011


As a rule, the energy industry anywhere is corrupt.

I wouldn't dispute that, but there should be a difference between a corrupt industry operating hand-in-hand with a corrupt government and that same corrupt industry being properly regulated by a nominally uncorrupt government. It seems however that there is little difference in outcome.

Of course, no one can predict

I wouldn't place too much value in hindsight. The problem at Daiichi was not a failure to imagine what could happen, but a failure to imagine what could be done to solve it once it happened. I mean this was not a nuclear problem, this was an electricity problem. The failure of Japanese engineers to serve that site with some sort of emergency power is astonishing. Bewildering. Maybe this was ultimately a case of too much government regulation and red tape? Maybe a little more corruption would have been a good thing?
posted by three blind mice at 7:13 AM on June 14, 2011


The failure of Japanese engineers to serve that site with some sort of emergency power is astonishing. Bewildering.

It's a certain kind of arrogance, really.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:16 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


No one assumes the Japanese to be corrupt, yet they achieve the same poor results in construction, safety, and planning.

It sounds like you've never heard of TEPCO.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:18 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


What really surprised me about Fukushima is how much time and effort it took to get things like robots, restore power supply (whether from portable generators or grid).

If someone asked me a month before Fukushima about it as a hypothetical scenario, I could see how unlikely events and bad / absent forethought could combine to create a disaster. But once disaster is apparent, if you asked me how long it would take to get suitable robots in, I'd guess any number of them would be airlifted from France, US, germany in a matter of 12-24 hours. Weeks, months, - really!?

I would have expected that sufficient number of portable generators and electric switch room equipment would be, again, airlifted by helicopters in a matter of about the same time frame, 12-24 hours if not less, from a few central warehouses where this equipment should be on stand-by, ready for emergencies.

I would also have expected that control rooms are designed in a way that allows hooking them up to small batteries (like car batteries) in case of emergencies. For weeks they've used flashlights in the control rooms. At least they never had to resort to wooden torches or candles, I guess that's something..
posted by rainy at 7:28 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


one of the main ways to replace nuclear power right now is still coal

One of them? It's practically the only one that's caught on so far, totally dominating all the others and very rapidly becoming the world's energy source of choice to keep the machines running. It's cheaper than nuclear power. It's tried and proven. There's no problem about what to do with the radioactive waste: It just magically goes away into the atmosphere. The only people it usually kills directly are miners, and not usually more than a few at a time. It has all kinds of advantages. Coal it is!

Solar power is good too I suppose. Browsing around the web a bit it looks like it might be down to only 3 times more expensive, more or less. Getting closer.
posted by sfenders at 7:45 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


It sounds like you've never heard of TEPCO.

Yes, but the point is that TEPCO was not operating hand-in-hand with the corrupt Italian government, but in a country which was viewed (rightly or wrongly) as being better governed and less corrupt than that of Italy.

I would have expected that sufficient number of portable generators and electric switch room equipment would be, again, airlifted by helicopters in a matter of about the same time frame, 12-24 hours if not less, from a few central warehouses where this equipment should be on stand-by, ready for emergencies.

Or from the top of any hospital in the region, or any construction site. It's not like a diesel generator is a rare and unportable thing. In normal times you can have one delivered to a job site in a matter of hours. I mean damn, it was an electricity problem that caused the meltdown. No power to the water pumps. All that because a few hundred amperes couldn't be delivered to that site in one of the richest and most modern countries in the world.

The Italians would have sent some guys down there with instructions to steal a generator from a construction site, hijack a fuel truck, and would have been the end of it. No questions asked.
posted by three blind mice at 7:47 AM on June 14, 2011


>How 'bout if your experiences with nuclear power involved living near Fukushima? Would that engender grave doubts as well?

No, because as gjc points out, Fukushima was a singular incidence of poor placement and not one that could be easily replicated. Even less easily replicated would be the quake and tsunami which led to the current disasater, seeing as how the Tohoku quake was the strongest to ever hit Japan and one of the strongest quakes ever recorded. So again, no, while I'm certainly not planning on buying a summer home in Okuma now, the thought of living next to the plant for the previous 40 years it had been in operation would have probably been lower than "should I have fries or a salad?" on my list of concerns.

It's worth noting that the past big nuclear plant disasters were either a result of operator error or deliberate Soviet corner cutting. The unique situation at Fukushima similarly has been exacerbated by TEPCO's mismanagement coupled with their history of falsifying safety records. If Silvi's confessions have a point (besides conflating the risk of nuclear power with the risk of unaccounted for nuclear weapons), it's that nuclear power could be done safely, if only people weren't so venal and lazy.
posted by Panjandrum at 7:53 AM on June 14, 2011


Solar sounds beautiful but can't help feeling uneasy about the required battery storage infrastructure.

It turns out that we're also bulldozing tons of wilderness in the Southwest to put in giant solar arrays, some of which apparently contains the threatened desert tortoise. You can ask Joe Biden what he thinks about efforts to mitigate their extinction.

(But, hey, we saved $125)
posted by dirigibleman at 7:57 AM on June 14, 2011


The Japanese tried to restore power using equipment rushed to the scene, but failed:
"[...] batteries and mobile generators were dispatched to the site, delayed by poor road conditions with the first not arriving until 21:00 JST 11 March,[63][73] almost six hours after the tsunami struck.
Work to connect portable generating equipment to power water pumps was still continuing as of 15:04 JST on 12 March,[74] because the normal connection point in a basement was flooded and because of difficulties finding suitable cables.[68]"
(source)
posted by hat_eater at 7:58 AM on June 14, 2011


Even less easily replicated would be the quake and tsunami which led to the current disasater,

But again this seems like a focus on the wrong thing. It was not actually the quake and tsunami and the location of these plants which caused the problem - it was an electricity problem. A simple and uncomplicated problem: providing electricity to electric pumps. AND EVEN THIS WAS TOO MUCH.

So tell me again, nuclear power could be done safely, if only people weren't so venal and lazy.

They can also be unimaginative, timid, overly conservative....
posted by three blind mice at 8:01 AM on June 14, 2011


...the thought of living next to the plant for the previous 40 years it had been in operation would have probably been lower than "should I have fries or a salad?" on my list of concerns.

Well then, you would've been dramatically under-concerned, now wouldn't you?

If Silvi's confessions have a point (besides conflating the risk of nuclear power with the risk of unaccounted for nuclear weapons), it's that nuclear power could be done safely, if only people weren't so venal and lazy.

I wouldn't by a long shot agree that this is Silvi's only worthwhile point. But even assuming, for a moment, that it is, well... people are venal and lazy. And inept, and overly self-confident, and prone to bad decision-making, and a thousand other things. This will not change, ever.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:03 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


sfenders: "one of the main ways to replace nuclear power right now is still coal

One of them? It's practically the only one that's caught on so far, totally dominating all the others and very rapidly becoming the world's energy source of choice to keep the machines running. ... It just magically goes away into the atmosphere. The only people it usually kills directly are miners, and not usually more than a few at a time. It has all kinds of advantages. Coal it is!

LOLOLOL... oh man. I mean, I can agree on the nice weasel words "directly" and the fact that yeah - it's an entrenched technology. But man... It sure sounds like you're a cheerleader for Massey.

posted by symbioid at 8:05 AM on June 14, 2011


You know what? All the nuclear power plants should be safe in case of zombie apocalypse. That scenario includes being abandoned by the staff, appropriated as a holdout by a band of teenagers, having all the wrong buttons pressed, all the precious instrumentation ripped out as improvised weapons and anything smashable smashed during a fight with the undead. Oh, and also being hit by a plane out of control.
Are the engineers up to the task? I believe they are.
Are the CEOs?...
posted by hat_eater at 8:13 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


People who say we need nuclear to replace fossil fuels are simply wrong.
posted by stbalbach at 8:32 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's worth noting that the past big nuclear plant disasters were either a result of operator error or deliberate Soviet corner cutting.

Is that supposed to make us feel better or worse?

I think we can all agree that a very large earthquake followed by a tsunami is a relatively uncommon event. But operator error and corner cutting are with us always . . .
posted by flug at 8:51 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


>A simple and uncomplicated problem: providing electricity to electric pumps. AND EVEN THIS WAS TOO MUCH.

A simple and uncomplicated problem typically, but let's not forget the whole record-level earthquake/tsunami thing might have been causing some delays in the response.

To really illustrate what I'm trying to say though, let's compare what happened at Fukushima I with what happened at Fukushima II, just right down the road. At Fk-I the reactors automatically shutdown and switched to off-site power. Those reactors that had their off-site connections cut switched over to the dozen-plus diesel generators on-site. So far, so best as to be expected under the conditions. It wasn't until the tsunami surged over the seawall, flooding not only the generators but the power connection points, that this turned from "expected damage following Godzilla-like earthquake" to "outright disaster and meltdown."

At Fk-II, on the other hand, additional precautions had been taken in the event of a tsunami. The generators there did not fail, and while I imagine it wasn't a lot of fun, the reactors were safely shut down a few days later.

So, the problem at Fk-I wasn't some inevitable end result of nuclear power, but a result of not taking precautions that had been recommended years previously. People may be lazy, venal, timid, etc., but that doesn't mean they can't also be studious, industrious, and a wide array of other things I've heard are good personality traits. The argument that nuclear power is somehow intrinsically more dangerous than fossil fuels is just specious. Human fallibility applies equally to coal mines and oil tankers as it does to fission reactors.
posted by Panjandrum at 8:59 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


> People who say we need nuclear to replace fossil fuels are simply wrong.

I find your detailed and well-reasoned argument both compelling and convincing. Do you have a button I could wear?
posted by Panjandrum at 9:01 AM on June 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Whatever happened to energy conservation? Nuclear power and coal plants are very expensive ways to keep power flowing to our cellphone chargers and DVRs and electric car chargers.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:12 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


People who say we need nuclear to replace fossil fuels are simply wrong.

You're right. That's because it's much too late for nuclear, much less solar or wind (or, god help us, biofuels), to have any impact on humanity's addiction to burning hydrocarbons. We're inexorably returning our atmosphere to the carbon levels of the Jurassic Period, and it will be fatal to our way of life. Any number of nuclear meltdowns won't equal the devastation that 700ppm CO2 is going to wreak on humanity.

People who say we don't need nuclear power to replace fossil fuels are missing the point. Nothing is going to replace fossil fuels until we pull the last kWh out of the ground. It's over.

As long as we're fighting a futile battle against our species' inherent lack of forethought, we'll need every single weapon at our disposal.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:12 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Human fallibility applies equally to coal mines and oil tankers as it does to fission reactors.

Except that the scale of a nuclear catatrophe on the order of Chernobyl or Fukushima, as compared to (from your examples) a tanker oil spill or a coal mine explosion is so much greater, and directly effects the lives of so many more people. Evacuations of homes, businesses, farms (for many, this will mean forever), with all the attendant social upheavals... livelihoods shattered, the very real threat of thousands developing cancers, birth defects... groundwater contamination, food supply contamination, all up and down the food chain...

What's happened (and happening) at Fukushima makes a tanker spill or a coal mine accident look like a walk in the park by comparison. This vastly greater danger, this ultimately unacceptable level of danger inherent in nuclear power is, by the way, one of the key arguing points of Silvi's essay.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:16 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


People who say we need nuclear to replace fossil fuels are simply wrong.

We still need energy. Improved efficency and "alternate" renewable sources are not suffient to bridge the gap, especially if vehicules switch from petroleum fuel to electrical. Taking fossil fuels and nuclear out of the energy production mix would induce a depression like none we've ever seen. People would starve, probably within months.

In the absence of alternatives, the world is moving to natural gas as a power source in a big way. Gas plants are cheap to build. Gas is cheap and safe to move about as long as you don't put it on ships. There seems to be a lot of it, more than oil even. It can be made from renewable resources in a pinch, though not yet very economically.

Shame about that climate change thing. Bangladesh will just have to make do.
posted by bonehead at 9:20 AM on June 14, 2011


flapjax at midnite: I know Panjandrum mentioned coal mine accidents, but I don't think people arguing against coal are doing so on the basis of how often coal mine accidents happen, as unfortunate and awful for those concerned as they might be.
posted by edd at 9:34 AM on June 14, 2011


I'd probably put nuke plants in those bad areas onto big-ass barges.

Meet the modern aircraft carrier. And even that big-ass a barge can only really power its own operations, not much more than a small town. So you're talking about some reeeeeaaaallllly big-ass barges.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:49 AM on June 14, 2011


the chance of an earthquake and tsunami of the magnitude that hit Japan are quite remote

In 1896, 115 years earlier, there was one just like it (magnitude of only 7.2) that produced tsunami up to 30m (125 feet) ... epicenter in almost the same location, NE of Sendai ... that killed 22,000+ people and destroyed 9000 houses.

If the people who built the reactors didn't remember that, WHY NOT?
posted by Twang at 10:12 AM on June 14, 2011


If the people who built the reactors didn't remember that, WHY NOT?

Because they're only human. Much of Japan's infrastructure was planned and constructed in the middle of the 20th century, which experienced a slight lull in tectonic activity. The nuclear power plants themselves were planned and constructed starting in the 1960s and 1970s, when plate tectonics (and how they influence earthquakes and tsunamis) was still poorly understood and not accepted by the scientific community.

Besides, Japan is not the only place in the world that ignores past threats - many, many cities around the world have been built on coastal and river floodplains.

Human beings are generally not able to predict risk very well.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:46 AM on June 14, 2011


> Except that the scale of a nuclear catatrophe on the order of Chernobyl or Fukushima, as compared to (from your examples) a tanker oil spill or a coal mine explosion is so much greater, and directly effects the lives of so many more people.

The simple fact that we can all reference individual nuclear disasters is indicative of how rare and spectacular they are in comparison to the pervasive negative effects of other sources of electric power. Deaths directly related to Chernobyl -- the only nuclear incident which has so far required a permanent large-scale evacuation, assuming Fukushima doesn't end up like this -- have been estimated by the IAEA to be about 9000. You might say that number is biased, and you would not be alone, but let's compare those nuclear disaster deaths to another probably biased source on coal mining deaths in China. According to PRC numbers, China alone has averaged more than 5000 coal mining deaths per year.

If we want to talk about long-term or wide scale effects, fossil fuels are going to lose out again. Just sticking with coal, we have the release of heavy metals and acids into both the evironment and water table, the lowering of said water table, and yes, more radiation released into the environment per coal plant than a similar sized nuclear plant. This doesn't even address the mining techniques which level entire mountains. Nor does it address the numerous secondary health effects (primarily respiratory, but also carcinogenic) disease which results from the burning of the fuel.

I don't want to trivialize your concerns, but focusing on the extreme consequences of nuclear power elides the fact that fossil fuels often produce the same, or similar, consequences (cancers, chronic disease, permanent environmental damage). Coal, oil, and even natural gas just happen to produces these effects gradually and as part of the daily routine of the power plants. Nuclear, on the other hand, tends to only produce these effects when something goes horribly wrong (like failing to make recommended safety upgrades in the event of a tsunami).
posted by Panjandrum at 10:59 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


You're assuming that if someone opposes nuclear they tacitly support the use of fossil fuels. The only real solution is less energy consumption, and judging from the successes of austerity and conservation programs during World War II, entirely possible. Our society is based upon so much waste that there is plenty of room to cut. It would, however, mean a radical change in lifestyle.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:18 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


You're assuming that if someone opposes nuclear they tacitly support the use of fossil fuels.

I think that there's a strong case to be made that that is so. Even minimal carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade schemes at the margins of consumption are so unpalatable as to be dead in the water politically. With nuclear off the table, for the next two decades at least, that means gas (which is what Germany is switching to) and coal (which will continue to be important in the US, China and possibly Canada too). We may improve consumption on the road side by increasing electrical or hydrogen use, but that power has to come from somewhere.

In the absence of alternatives, fossil fuels will continue to be our major energy sources.
posted by bonehead at 11:30 AM on June 14, 2011


>>People who say we need nuclear to replace fossil fuels are simply wrong.

I find your detailed and well-reasoned argument both compelling and convincing.

See Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air. Also freely available. As discussed previously on MeFi.
posted by stbalbach at 11:41 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


One of Europe’s most severe droughts in a century is threatening crop production, shrinking some rivers to near-record low levels, and raising the specter that France may experience blackouts as some river-cooled nuclear power plants may be forced to shut down
Guess that puts a hole in the idea that nuclear power isn't effected by the weather, or climate.
posted by stbalbach at 11:45 AM on June 14, 2011


That's an intersting link stbalbach. I hadn't seen it before, thanks.

however, as MacKay says himself (p112):
To sustain Britain’s lifestyle on its renewables alone would be very difficult. A renewable-based energy solution will necessarily be large
and intrusive.
And (p233):
Let’s be realistic. Just like Britain, Europe can’t live on its own renewables. So if the aim is to get off fossil fuels, Europe needs nuclear power, or solar power in other people’s deserts (as discussed on p179), or both.
There are no magic answers. The public has demonstrated resistance to policies designed to restrict it's energy budgets to the levels that renewables alone would allow. Something needs to fill the gap. That can be nuclear. It might be solar, if costs ever come down. In the absence of anything else, it's gas and coal.
posted by bonehead at 12:00 PM on June 14, 2011


There are no magic answers.

This. You like having an industrial base, metal smelting, manufacturing? Then you need reliable high-quality power. That comes from only a few sources; coal, gas, nuclear, hydro. Coal and gas are major greenhouse gas emitters (and coal releases a ton of other nasty stuff). Hydro is wonderful (modulo the occasional drowned scenic valley, town, etc), but is only available in limited locations.

Solar and wind cannot supply this grade of power. We just don't have the storage technology needed. If you want to see one thing that hasn't improved massively since it was invented, look at a battery.

Solar power sats beaming to rectennas on might work, but they're science fiction at the moment. Space research is not doing well in the funding department, so I don't expect that to change.

Nuclear is badly needed at the moment, and I say that as someone who lives 20 miles from a nuclear reactor. It needs to be brought into the modern world, instead of trying to push 1960's designs far past their intended lifetimes.

I think the general abandonment of nuclear power by Europe will be a disaster in the long term. I'd love to see a 'moon shot' program spearheaded by the US to come up with energy solutions that will support an industrialized society.

I'm not holding my breath. (But I am staying indoors on the ozone alert days.)
posted by bitmage at 1:04 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hydro is wonderful (modulo the occasional drowned scenic valley, town, etc), but is only available in limited locations.

Hydro power is emits greenhouse gases such as methane.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:09 PM on June 14, 2011


Solar power in the UK!

I can't even get a slight tan here.
I had the heat on two days ago.
posted by srboisvert at 1:52 PM on June 14, 2011


No country with reactors does nuclear policy right.

Canada's CANDU reactor design is possibly the safest in the world
- PWR, not BWR
- the control rods drop down passively (gravity) in the event of a power failure
- the heavy water moderator is easy to poison or dilute, stopping the reaction
- built to withstand a having a 747 slam into it
- not built on fault lines

Great! Now ask about the experimental reactors at Chalk River. They're old. They provide much of the world's supply of medical isotopes, so they have sometimes been kept open for political reasons when they needed to be shut down for urgent maintenance. They are just upstream of Ottawa.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:27 PM on June 14, 2011


Off topic, but I just had to point out that the same David MacKay who wrote "Sustainable Energy - without the hot air" also wrote "Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms", also available free.
posted by heathkit at 3:43 PM on June 14, 2011


Hydro power is emits greenhouse gases such as methane.

This is kinda bogus. The CO2 released by the vegetative matter rotting in the new lake is biologically active carbon and is actively cycled through the biosphere. This rot is going to happen with or without the dam and lake in place. Fossil fuel carbon is locked up years (in the geological sense) and being released without any corresponding biological uptake mechanism.

The other bogus thing is methane, while it does block more infrared radiation, also has a much,much shorter residence time in the atmosphere. It gets chemically changed to something else, like carbon dioxide and water vapor pretty quick, in something like months to years, not the decades to centuries that carbon dioxide takes to do the same thing.

This kind of crappy, politically driven science articles are a big reason why otherwise rational people don't buy the global warming/climate change thing. People with political biases are co-opting the message to promote their anti-western civilization, anti-US or anti-Industrial society message they have been prattling for decades. They are not presenting a viable alternative to the CO2 problem (like nuclear power displacing fossil fuel power) but presenting a everything about modern society is bad agenda, and every alternative is just as bad so we should all just shiver in the dark and be serfs to some enlightened individual that all saw it coming and we all should have listened too in the first place. Modern industrial society is fantastic-women have the same status in law that men do, no (legal) slavery, widespread abundance or healthy food, indoor plumbing, travel, education for the masses, freedom from most of the worst diseases that have scourged mankind since civilization began, long life for the vast majority. All these things are possible primarily because of the energy available to everyone in these little white rectangles in the wall. It really is quite magical. People are not going to give that up without a fight, because they can't. If we try to get by on an ever decreasing amount of power by 'conservation' we are going to be killing each other for food, if we don't die from some disease brought about due to exposure or lack of medicine or weakness from starvation. And just what are you willing to give up in the name of conservation? Heating your home? No computers to have this largely meaningless arguments on? walking everywhere? Lights to read your books by? Cheap, abundant power has become such a part of our lives we, literally, couldn't live without.

The renewables should be used in areas that makes sense (like solar in the US southwest) or hydro in the pacific northwest (this is largely covered already) but they alone will not save us. Solar power satellites should be invested in but they can't come soon enough to save us. We have enough coal and natural gas but even if you don't buy the global warming doom arguments continuing to run an uncontrolled expirement on our life support system is BAD IDEA and we need alternatives, such as nuclear to replaces these things. And nuclear is such a good replacement for coal fired we can just build a nuclear reactor (modern ones with all the modern safety systems and designs) on the other side of the steam turbines and just turn off the coal burners. This saves at least half the installed cost of a power plant. And it seems a large share fo the (very) large cost of nuclear plants is overcoming the NIMBYism and just ignorant political opposition to them.

Life is full of risks. We all get in cars everyday (mostly) and accept that risk. The risk of nuclear power is so much less than almost every other form of grid power and so much less than other risks we accept without so much benefit from. Don't take the council of your fears, but assume mankind is up to the task, which for every reactor but 2 (three mile island was contained safely with no loss of life or property beyond the plant boundary) history has proven to be the correct way to bet.
posted by bartonlong at 4:56 PM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Fukushima was a failure of imagination. Or if not imagination, then the active repression of it. I mean, generators in a flood zone? C'mon.

Y'know, nuclear plants present an excellent opportunity to open-source the plant blueprints. And the security. Public cameras, 100% coverage, redundant recognition systems, full accountability for every second of everything.

I'm sure that waaay back at the beginning someone would pointed out a few of the obvious mistakes. In hindsight, I think we'll find out all big mistakes happen because processes weren't open.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:46 PM on June 14, 2011


Someone should do it. Kickstarter a project to identify a site, identify the best technology, blueprint the roughed-in facility, and find funding to implement it in detail (ie. the research, engineering, and machinery labour).
posted by five fresh fish at 6:59 PM on June 14, 2011


I'm fine with dams if they strip the resources first. Trees have fiber value. Wouldn't surprise me if the topsoil had a ton of value (ha! get it!) Might even be a fair bit of mineral wealth to be easily discovered, too. Gravel, sand, limestone. No point in wasting it.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:22 PM on June 14, 2011


Fukushima was a failure of imagination.

Indeed. Elbows are apparently a problem as well.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:45 PM on June 14, 2011


Grar. Someone punch the engineer.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:40 PM on June 14, 2011


He might be a "nuclear safety expert", but the first line is resume says he coordinates some useless group about "solar energy history" , which i guess is what happens when solar peddlers get €3.4 BLN/year for polluting in China as opposed to polluting here.
posted by 3mendo at 12:34 AM on June 15, 2011


...when solar peddlers get €3.4 BLN/year for polluting in China as opposed to polluting here.

I'm curious as to exactly what you are talking about here. Got any explanatory links?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:39 AM on June 15, 2011


nevermind, flapjax, i'm talking about the "conto energia", which is a law in italy (and europe) that tries to promote renewables by taxing everything else and giving some breaks to renewable producers.

The amount i quoted is relative to italy alone.
posted by 3mendo at 12:51 AM on June 15, 2011


http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/08/AR2008030802595.html

http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q=conrtibuti+rinnovabili+3%2C4+miliardi#hl=en&sa=X&ei=wmT4TYqXBMaohAfsnLyEDA&ved=0CBUQvwUoAQ&q=contributi+rinnovabili+3,4+miliardi&spell=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.&fp=a17560d1ef61d5f5&biw=1481&bih=794 (all in italian mind you)
posted by 3mendo at 12:53 AM on June 15, 2011


Data point: in the last 30 years, more people have died because of bicycle riding than from nuclear accidents.
posted by 3mendo at 1:05 AM on June 15, 2011


Thanks for the Washington Post article, 3mendo, that's an eye-opener, and I'll be looking out for more info on the current state (the article is from 2008) of polysilicon manufacturing technology and waste byproducts.

Data point: in the last 30 years, more people have died because of bicycle riding than from nuclear accidents.

These kinds of comparisons are utterly pointless, for a number of different reasons, especially as concerns nuclear accidents, which can and do kill people very slowly, over the course of decades, following major accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:41 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Furthermore, directly attributable deaths are far from the only major problem we're considering, as concerns nukes. The almost mind-bogglingly large costs in cleanup, relocation of evacuated citizenry, lost farmlands, factories, industries, productivity of all kinds, psychological effects on the populace, the list goes on and on. Your bicycles comparison, 3mendo, becomes more and more absurd, really.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:46 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


One of the problems that many people have with these kinds of discussions is the numbers. They are simply not visible as general knowledge. So the best I can do to help this discussion is relate these numbers back to experience in living memory, or near enough.

I'm starting here from a position that climate change is real, that it will cause trouble for everyone, and if we keep pumping more carbon into the sky than the natural carbon cycle can handle then we'll end up with the "Jurassic Sauna" - a deeply inimical environment for the human species. (FYI - the "Jurassic Sauna" was about 30F (15C) warmer than now - making most of the equatorial area of Earth uninhabitable to humans - lovely for dinosaurs...). That means burning all of the obtainable carbon reserves - about four centuries more at current consumption.

The IPCC has calculated that we need to limit ourselves to producing about a tonne of carbon per person per year in order to avoid catastrophic change - that still means climate change, but slow enough that we can deal with the effects in reasonable time and investment.

Here's the problem: Europeans produce about 10 tonnes of carbon per person per year. Americans produce 20.

To get back to about a tonne of carbon per person per year we can take a look at the wealth level when we lived at that level. If we continue to produce energy with the mix we have now, it works out as roughly life of a poor person in 1900 in the UK.


Many people espouse conservation as the solution - effectively avoiding the perceived downsides of both fossil fuels and nuclear.

There's also usually a fantasy that renewables can pick up most or some of the slack. You can read the regular articles by Lewis Page and others on the very helpful theregister.co.uk. That means renewables just cannot pick up the bulk of the slack. Ain't going to happen for the bulk of our energy consumption, no way, no how. There's a reason windmills are a dark ages technology. Never mind the 30 "calm, quiet, tideless nights every winter" - say goodbye to your grandparents - they are dead from exposure.

I'll take this from a UK perspective: Conservation from 10 tonnes down to 1 tonne with the population of 20-ish million we had at the start of the 20th Century would result in the following:

Assuming we keep the current mix of energy generation.

Life expectancy would return to approx. 46-47 years. Say goodbye to living to an old age - you'll die during the first hard frost after a failed harvest. One in three of your grandkids will die before the age of two. Of course, the rich would be much better off - but we're talking about ordinary people. That's what it's like without enough energy to feed yourself a varied diet, living in a cold home.

Most of the population would have to return to the land, or related jobs. No more physically easy work in an office - you'll be worn down by physical labour while a small proportion of the population get the chance to work in cold offices where the premier desks are near the single heater. Remember - insulation takes a lot of energy to manufacture.

Food will become a hell of a lot less interesting. Remember the cliche of British "cuisine" being "boiled beef and carrots"? That's because we faced the brunt of two world wars and bankrupted ourselves in the process - that meant we've only just had the opportunity to develop the variety of our food in the last three or four decades or so. We stayed with Victorian cuisine for decades after the USA moved forward with variety - because we didn't have the energy budgets to do so (energy is a proxy here for money and wealth etc.)

Holidays will be six days on the beach in Scunthorpe or Blackpool. You will never leave the UK, you will never even travel beyond the nearest big town or city.

Very few people will need to be educated beyond their specific skills, welcome back to the peasantry. Remember rich people will still be able to get whatever education they want and that means you will never ever be a rich person - because they'll return embedded hereditary privileges within a generation. (With only a few opportunities - why wouldn't you favour your children over everyone else?) Factory owners were all from the upper-middle classes for a reason - they had good educations and the abilities to obtain financing.

None of this considers the tripling of the population since 1900 in the west. What do we do with the 40 million extra people on the island of Britain? How do we get back to 20 million people?

OK, now you see the problems with conservation.
posted by Hugh Routley at 5:07 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


OK, so now we go down the renewables route.

We want the same high-quality power we have now, we want machinery so we can produce farm equipment and cars and other facilitators of a western lifestyle.

You are looking at having just as many fossil fuel powerplants as before. Why? Because renewables don't produce enough power all the time. In the evening, when people want warm homes and to watch their TV - you need more power than in the sunny, windy daytime. During storms, you need to turn off the turbines. During the 30 evenings per year when there is no tidal, solar or wind power available - you still need to stop the little old ladies dying from exposure.

Also, because coal and nuclear require significant time to come up to speed that means we must build gas plants. Loads of them.

So we have double or triple the cost to build twice as much power infrastructure as before - and it doesn't appreciably reduce our carbon intensity (because we still need constantly running gas plants to provide "Base Load" to smooth out the renewable output from second to second - even during optimal renewable delivery.

Of course, considering the current cost of renewables in bulk (including national grid costs) the idea we can do it in two or three times the price is very optimistic - we'd need concerted national R&D investment on the order of the Apollo programme to achieve these cost savings.

Maybe we get 20% efficiency improvements by going down this route - by increasing our costs hugely and spending massive amounts of energy building and maintaining our doubled energy infrastructure.

As we need to (in my post above) hit 90% decarbonisation, we are going to fail.

"Renewables first" is a massive waste of time.
posted by Hugh Routley at 5:18 AM on June 15, 2011


OK so to recap:

To minimise the impacts of climate change we need to move down from ten tonnes of carbon per person per year (twenty if you are from the USA) down to one. We need to drastically de-carbonise our lives.

Conservation by 90% means an end to our current quality of life. It means a return to shortened lives of backbreaking labour on the land, and a return to hereditary privilege - why do you think millions of people rushed into the wild west in the 19th century? It means a return to a life we currently wouldn't consider to be pleasant and I haven't considered the energy costs inherent in food production to support the current populations (triple those of 1900).

To live on renewables is another idea. That won't work if we expect to keep our quality of life the same. If we have lower quality power we have less industry so we start down the path to the conservation life. Life expectancy will shrink, maybe a bit less than the full 90% plan, but how long do you want to live? Do you want to die of exposure in your own home?

So, what's left? Actually decarbonising our economy.
posted by Hugh Routley at 5:27 AM on June 15, 2011


We don't need to use less energy. We don't need to lose our current quality of life. We need to produce less carbon for each watt of energy (e.g. in our fertiliser, our transport, our food, our heating etc.)

There is one proven way of doing that. Nuclear and nuclear-produced hydrogen.

Yes there are catastrophic risks with nuclear. They kill almost as many people per year as a tiny fraction of the current power systems - so if we do move over to nuclear for both our power and our transport (hydrogen) then we'll see a reduction in the deaths resulting from our power industry.

Our air will be cleaner and less radioactive. That's another result of stopping using coal and gas.

We will have consistent high-quality energy, so we'll be able to have an industrial civilisation.

We will be able to feed ourselves in warm homes. So our live expectancy won't reduce.

As you can see there are a lot of downsides to going nuclear.

In fact, if we took a long-term and rational view of nuclear we would also work to improve the safety, so the catastrophic risks would reduce. Saving even more lives.

(And before I get the usual request to live beside a powerplant if I'm so sure? I live on the south coast of England - across the water from many many French nuclear powerplants. I live 30 miles from Dungeness A and B.)


There is one way out of the artificially increased carbon cycle without destroying our civilisation.

Currently we have too many people fantasising about how we could go back to the past to improve our future. You have no idea what you are talking about. The facts point in one direction only.
posted by Hugh Routley at 5:36 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Solar sounds beautiful but can't help feeling uneasy about the required battery storage infrastructure.

Then you'll love flywheel grid energy storage, which use dense carbon-fiber disks to store energy, no exotic metals needed. Cable and phone companies have been using them for more than a decade to manage power to their equipment.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:07 AM on June 15, 2011


These kinds of comparisons are utterly pointless, for a number of different reasons, especially as concerns nuclear accidents, which can and do kill people very slowly, over the course of decades, following major accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

I don't understand this sentiment. Catastrophic, but low risk events are worse than common-place but moderate risk ones? It's ok that fly-ash and pollution from coal reactors shorten thousands or even millions of lives each year, but bad when a catastrophic event effect similar numbers of people that has ocurred twice in 40 years of use?

Hazard is risk and exposure. It seem wrong-headed to me to just focus on risk alone, at least, to keep the most people safe and healthy. It's entirely reasonable to look at reducing risky options, I can't don't discount the thousands of people who die every year of new water-bourne diseases caused by sea-level rise just because they don't make the news.
posted by bonehead at 8:58 AM on June 15, 2011


Here's the problem: Europeans produce about 10 tonnes of carbon per person per year. Americans produce 20.

To get back to about a tonne of carbon per person per year we can take a look at the wealth level when we lived at that level. If we continue to produce energy with the mix we have now, it works out as roughly life of a poor person in 1900 in the UK.


That would be the case if we hadn't made any technological development since 1900, buit we have. We can make homes so that they can stay warm with little more heat than is produced by the occupants. We can light homes with only a few hundred watts of power. There is a lot more to be done but we can cut the energy footprint of our homes substantially and probably with some improvements in living quality at the same time.

Nuclear and nuclear-produced hydrogen.

Storage of electrical energy in batteries is 80% efficient, conversion of electrical energy to hydrogen and then back again is 50% efficient. costs of developing nationwide hydrogen infrastructure in the US would be in the order of $500bn. Why would hydrogen make any sense, nuclear of otherwise?
posted by biffa at 8:02 AM on June 16, 2011


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