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Don't blame the tsunami
July 5, 2012 8:44 AM   Subscribe

"The ... Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco, and the lack of governance by said parties."
posted by mondo dentro (127 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I, like many others, am intrigued by the promise of new nuclear power technologies, such as thorium reactors [1,2,3]. But can any technological system with the capacity for catastrophic extreme events be considered safe in a global economy that rewards cost externalization while being rife with regulatory capture?
posted by mondo dentro at 8:46 AM on July 5, 2012 [28 favorites]


"Safe" power generation is a concept that derives from ignorance. The game is risk management and choosing the lesser evil. The problem is that if you look at the ecological and health cost of the currently in-use power generation solutions, you become a nuclear supporter, and that is only acceptable for those looking for the truth, rather than those looking for the next reason why nuclear is bad mkay.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 8:50 AM on July 5, 2012 [12 favorites]


It seems our greatest risk with these nuclear endeavors isn't nature itself, but rather corruption, hubris & indifference. I don't think it's possible to engineer around the basest human factors that cause these sorts of things to spiral out of control.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:52 AM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, we better engineer around what we can, such as massive CO2 production, and choose nuclear.
posted by TwelveTwo at 8:53 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


CautionToTheWind: "Safe" power generation is a concept that derives from ignorance.

For the record, as someone comfortable with complex system analysis, I use the word "safe" as a synonym for "having acceptable risk". So... not sure if you're just being dismissive or actually raising a legitimate point about risk management.
posted by mondo dentro at 8:54 AM on July 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


It would be great if this thread could be more about the human factors issues around grand-scale projects rather than another pro/anti nuke dirty bomb.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:55 AM on July 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


I don't think it's possible to engineer around the basest human factors that cause these sorts of things to spiral out of control.

Apparently it is, since there are human communities that do manage to run nuclear power plants relatively safely.

I don't know if we could do it in the US, though, due to the aforementioned financial pressures and ownership of the gov't by profit-driven corporations.
posted by DU at 8:56 AM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


I like how Germany's reaction to the news that massive Tsunamis are bad for nuclear power plants by shutting own theirs... and are now importing their power from dodgy Eastern European reactors. Great logical moves there guys!
posted by Artw at 8:56 AM on July 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


I don't think it's possible to engineer around the basest human factors that cause these sorts of things to spiral out of control.

There are a lot of impressive bridges that are still standing, in my neck of the woods at least. I guess I'm just saying that it's possible to "engineer around" a heck of a lot of things, see everything from the Great Wall and Pyramids to our accomplishments in space. If we can do it with nuclear... I don't know but the alternatives sure aren't pretty either.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:57 AM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


My point is that in the absence of nuclear you usually get coal, and that is never discussed.

For each person killed by nuclear power generation, 4,000 die from coal. This is adjusted for how much power is produced by each method of power generation.

You could toss live children into the reactor as moderators and you'd still be saving lives compared to coal.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 8:59 AM on July 5, 2012 [44 favorites]


seanmpuckett: It would be great if this thread could be more about the human factors issues around grand-scale projects rather than another pro/anti nuke dirty bomb.

Well put! This is my dream for this thread! Not sure it's very likely, though, but thought I'd try.

As an engineering systems guy, I think we tech-heads spend too much time talking about how awesome our technology when frequently it is how it actually functions when embedded in society that is the crucial issue.
posted by mondo dentro at 8:59 AM on July 5, 2012 [11 favorites]


The pyramids haven't needed highly-skilled engineers on site 24/7 & a host of government oversight to keep them standing, & there doesn't seem to have ever been any extra ounce of profit to wring out of them by further cost-cutting as they stood. What do we call that? A straw man?

Bridges fall down too, but the consequences are usually pretty localized.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:01 AM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Bridges require significantly less ongoing "engineering" than nuclear power plants.

Maybe the US could import energy from a country with sane regulatory controls.
posted by DU at 9:02 AM on July 5, 2012


Devil's Rancher, you've said it well. Acceptably low-risk nuclear power is not an engineering problem, it's an issue of governments and regulatory systems in dire need of honest assessment and serious repair.
posted by compartment at 9:03 AM on July 5, 2012


Because nuclear and coal are our only options, going forward.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:03 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yea, so since it wasn't clear I was not saying that engineering and maintaining a bridge is the same things as engineering and maintaining a reactor. What I'm getting at is that in engineering failure is a requirement by which lessons are learned. Much as the Tacoma Narrows bridge sucked, it provided lessons that couldn't have been learned otherwise.

Can that requirement for failure be managed safely alongside the regulatory and human corruption factors that play into nuclear power generation? Dunno, but I hope so.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:07 AM on July 5, 2012


that is only acceptable for those looking for the truth

The Japanese looked past nuclear industry spokespersons and cheerleaders and looked within themselves for the truth: This disaster was no fluke, but man-made. Can anyone engineer the corruption and incompetence out of political and industrial systems, just as a general matter, let alone to the sheer degree that is apparently needed to make nuclear energy less dangerous?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:08 AM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Something that is often missing from the conversation about the relative dangers of coal compared to nuclear power is that coal power -- at least here in the US -- is not an equal risk to all. If what is happening in the West Virginia Appalachians were to occur instead in New York's Catskills, we would not be using coal.

And you know what? It's not just us that's at risk. Those mountains are four billion years old. Some of the oldest rock in the world. And we have decided that an energy policy with a planning horizon of perhaps two hundred years justifies grinding the tops off those mountains.

The risks posed by nuclear power are exacerbated by collusion between government and industry. The risks posed by coal power are exacerbated by collusion between (etc).
posted by samofidelis at 9:14 AM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Can anyone engineer the corruption and incompetence out of political and industrial systems, just as a general matter, let alone to the sheer degree that is apparently needed to make nuclear energy less dangerous?

To be fair the faults in the system only showed up after an unusually massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami. So even using 40+ year old tech they almost pulled it off. My guess is that with modern reactor design the answer is a resounding yes even with human factors added in. Human factors excludes Republicans though.
posted by srboisvert at 9:14 AM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Fucking hell. We don't eat butter anymore, here at my house. We struggle and do our best to buy only vegetables and meat from as far away from Fukushima as possible. There's fucking hot spots all around us. The goddamn gutters got cesium in 'em. We've tried our best not to get a single raindrop on us since 3/11. The utility lies to us. The government lies to us. There's precious little verifiable and accurate information to be had, anywhere. This is the reality on the ground, summer 2012, Japan. You think it'll be different anywhere else in the world next time this happens?

Straight to hell with your nuclear. Straight to hell with not being able to go back to your home, EVER. Straight to hell with your insane radioactive-for-thousands-of-years waste fuel, sitting there at reactor number four, just waiting for the next earthquake to fall apart. Fuck all that shit.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:17 AM on July 5, 2012 [47 favorites]


What happened in Japan with the Fukushima plant and TEPCO and the lack of oversight by the Japanese government is a national tragedy that the people of Tohoku and Japan will have to live with for centuries if not longer.

While there's still a lot to be done in Fukushima to safely close the plant, and we're only just starting that process, I think it's not too early to ask questions about the safety of nuclear elsewhere.

I'm quite worried about Japan (other facilities, the risk of future quakes, etc.) but there are many other places in the world where nuclear power is in place or being built where the controls (be it natural, technical, governmental, regulatory) are even weaker than they were in Japan.

We did not learn from Chernobyl. Will we learn from Fukushima?
posted by gen at 9:18 AM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nuclear panic eroded funding to the point where we must rely on 40 year old tech and buildings. That is a very significant problem, but 100% man-made.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 9:18 AM on July 5, 2012 [10 favorites]


Twenty-plus comments in, and no mention of solar. Typical.
posted by No Robots at 9:22 AM on July 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


Can that requirement for failure be managed safely alongside the regulatory and human corruption factors that play into nuclear power generation? Dunno, but I hope so.

Maybe I've just read Cat's Cradle too many times, but I fear that people in general are often too stupid & greedy to ever be truly trusted with apocalyptic technology. It's not that we can't engineer this stuff to be inherently safe -- the Fukushima plant was probably safe, if it had been operated within the standards it was designed to have been operated at. The scientists & engineers who design these things though, aren't imbued with the profit motive, and how are they going to engineer in ways to override regulatory collusion, graft & general incompetence?

I agree that civilization has a lot of hard choices in front of us in regards to global warming & resource depletion, but I wold much rather see a massive funding effort put into other inherently less dangerous technologies. We've got to tackle the thing on all fronts simultaneously, like conservation, solar, general crass consumerism & antipathy, etc.

We also still obviously need better regulation of the nukes we have, and I hope the outcome of this disaster is exactly that, but I doubt that putting all our eggs in the "let's make nukes inherently safe" basket is the way to go.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:23 AM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


Tepco came under heavy criticism in the report, partly for putting cost-cutting steps ahead of safety as nuclear power became less profitable over the years. "While giving lip service to a policy of 'safety first', in actuality, safety suffered at the expense of other management priorities," the team said.

Perhaps the regulators, legislators, and power company officials could be set to working on the cleanup site until it is habitable again. That might be an outcome that would clarify future "management priorities."
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:24 AM on July 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


Twenty-plus comments in, and no mention of solar. Typical.

Indeed! And that's because, as you may see above:

It would be great if this thread could be more about the human factors issues around grand-scale projects rather than another pro/anti nuke dirty bomb.

posted by echo target at 9:25 AM on July 5, 2012


Perhaps the regulators, legislators, and power company officials could be set to working on the cleanup site until it is habitable again.

In my dreams.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:26 AM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Perhaps the regulators, legislators, and power company officials could be set to working on the cleanup site until it is habitable again.

That would be a fitting sentence for those who colluded to enable this disaster.

The reality is that the economy is tough in Japan and people who otherwise would be in construction are taking the cleanup jobs at Fukushima.
posted by gen at 9:26 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Given that coal has a very strong chance to wipe out the human race, it's hard to get worked up about any of this. Makes me glad I don't have kids.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:26 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


it's hard to get worked up about any of this.

Hey, no problem then, I reckon.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:28 AM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


To be fair the faults in the system only showed up after an unusually massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami

...which turn out to be an event that occurs with great regularity every few hundred years, and for which there was plenty of evidence.
posted by localroger at 9:31 AM on July 5, 2012 [12 favorites]


Twenty-plus comments in, and no mention of solar. Typical.
posted by No Robots


We're waiting for sunrise.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 9:31 AM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


We did not learn from Chernobyl.

I think there was a strong "Right Stuff" mentality at work there, as in: of course that happened in the corrupt, incompetent, failed, yadda yadda Soviet Union. They suck! We are so much better at running things "here" (wherever that is). Odd thing is, that might have been true before the USSR collapsed... but that's another discussion.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:33 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


The official report of The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (executive summary in English).
posted by gen at 9:33 AM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


To be fair the faults in the system only showed up after an unusually massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami

...which turn out to be an event that occurs with great regularity every few hundred years, and for which there was plenty of evidence.
posted by localroger


Actually the design of Fukushima predates the tectonic theory, leading to an underestimation of the severity of possible earthquakes. That is how old that thing is.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 9:34 AM on July 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


There was once a time when there was debate as to whether official political positions should be professional, temporary, within society, economically integrated, and 'working for it,' or monastic, tenured, outside of society and market, without family, and 'sacrificed to it.'

Back then the argument against the monastic idea was that they would not be able to relate to the common man, they would not feel the consequences of their decisions, they would have no interest in their constituents outside of being fed, but now we know better.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:37 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like this piece more myself: Commission Calls Fukushima Nuclear Crisis a Man-Made Disaster (NYT)
posted by gen at 9:38 AM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Twenty-plus comments in, and no mention of solar. Typical.

Surely, any thoughtful discussion of the global energy system must include solar as a serious player (wind included, since it's fundamentally solar in origin). Fukushima again drives home the fact that we cannot separate "technology" from "society" when assessing risk. The challenge is to devise technological systems that fail gracefully. At least for the first generation of nuclear technologies, that is clearly not the case. I would love to hear more about the failure modes of the thorium cycle form a knowledgeable MeFite.

Solar, being distributed, having relatively low energy density, and having minimal negative by-products, almost certainly does fail gracefully. But that's not the whole story. There's no way to keep the same energy consumption level and just switch to solar. So the transition itself is part of the technological/social problem.

Personally, I think the way forward will involve highly heterogeneous power production, and will include nuclear, but mostly because I highly doubt we'll be able to curb our energy appetite rapidly enough--even though it is technologically feasible for us to do so.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:48 AM on July 5, 2012 [10 favorites]


Actually the design of Fukushima predates the tectonic theory

Doesn't matter; the Japanese have historic records, including plaques mounted on mountainsides warning their descendants not to build below such points, because the tsunami came up to here. Not everyone forgot the lesson.
posted by localroger at 9:56 AM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


CautionToTheWind: My point is that in the absence of nuclear you usually get coal, and that is never discussed.

Sure it is discussed, because pro-nuclear people bring it up in every goddamn thread that has anything to do with power generation. I'm nuclear-agnostic myself (I tend to align with the MetaFilter mainstream who sees nuclear as a viable option in principle but a terribly fraught political/regulatory issue in practice) but I'm getting pretty tired of having the same old "what is our favorite power-generation technology" argument whenever the topic comes up.

The topic isn't whether or not nuclear power can be done safely, it's whether or not the Fukushima distaster specifically might not have happened had government and regulatory bodies been doing their job instead of (predictably) playing grab-ass and having big parties with the corporation who was in charge of building and running the plant.

How about this: we as a species use too much power. We have this idea that we should be able to have as much power as we want, and more all the time, and that energy should never be a limiting factor in our endeavors. We started telling ourselves this around when coal and oil started taking off, and the nuclear debate – even the renewable energy debate – is so insoluble precisely because it is predicated on this insane assumption that we should have unlimited energy for everything at all times and that it should be free or nearly free.

As long as we insist on running a society that uses such massive amounts of energy, we are going to run the risk of it getting out of control once in a while, with catastrophic results. It doesn't matter whether we're talking nuclear power, or fossil fuels, or anything – the more dependent we are, the more we use, the more that we move heaven and earth (literally!) to feed our neverending thirst for energy, the more likely it becomes that something is going to go horribly wrong. It's not about the power source, it's about the scale of the operation, the amounts of energy involved, and our absolute life-or-death requirement that everything keep going and growing at all times. We may shuffle things around a bit here and there depending on what the latest disaster was and the politics of given generation methods, but there is an inherent danger to the system that we have created, and inherent instability and fragility that we blind ourselves to in our addiction.

These kind of events are inevitable, no matter what power generation system we are using. They are the natural result of running a society that is totally dependent on absolutely massive amounts of cheap energy. If we really want safer power, better environmental outcomes, and a more stable society then we need to scale back, to learn to conserve, to reduce our usage, to build systems and infrastructure that operate on smaller scales, with fewer byproducts, and that serve our real needs rather than our techno-utopian dream of neverending growth and development.
posted by Scientist at 10:07 AM on July 5, 2012 [19 favorites]


So... You're proposing mass population die-off as a solution to a safety problem?
posted by Artw at 10:14 AM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


No. Just kill off a few nuclear boosters. On second thought, they're about to die of starvation now anyway.
posted by No Robots at 10:17 AM on July 5, 2012


If we're going to talk human factors and risk management, who do you think has the sharpest ideas around how to engineer for long-term safety?

My research lab is a big fan of Jens Rasmussen, the long-time head of the Danish Nuclear Safety Research Organization, who studied how Denmark should adopt Nuclear power from the 1960s onward... and never concluded the risks were worthwhile.

Jens's work started in control systems and electrical engineering in '62, then to probabalistic risk assessment, then to describing the human operator as a probabalistic system element, then straight down the rabbit hole into psychology, human factors, and all that.

Proactive Risk Management in a Dynamic Society is one of the last things he's published. The framework hasn't been developed much since, which is a shame.
posted by anthill at 10:18 AM on July 5, 2012 [16 favorites]


Thanks so much, anthill, for this excellent recommendation. Will definitely check it out.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:22 AM on July 5, 2012


I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, if it's strictly tsunami caused, it makes an irrefutable case for the need to make nuclear energy much, much safer before we invest further. If it is the failure of humans to take appropriate measures, then one can argue that we need to fix people (good luck with that) not technology. On the other hand, knowing how the failure of human systems led to failure of the technology might, just might give us the fortitude to change those systems to the betterment of all regulatory attempts (I'm looking at you, BP Deepwater Horizon).
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:33 AM on July 5, 2012


Something I've been wondering: If I understand correctly, the worst part of Fukushima is that after the reactors scrammed (as they were supposed to do) they over heated because the diesel generators that were supposed to provide cooling were destroyed in the tsunami. After that they caught fire, and then radioactive smoke means large scale contamination.

So the whole thing could have been kept a low-level emergency if electricity could have been gotten to the cooling systems in time, right? Japan, of course, was in bad shape at the time, but it is still freaking Japan, one of the countries in the running for the most technologically advanced on Earth. Plus it has the United States as a very close ally, and the giant industry of China right next door.

With all that going for it, was it still a technical impossibility to restart cooling in time? There weren't enough air-liftable generators and fuel tankers? A US aircraft carrier could not anchor off shore and run cables? The undamaged part of the country couldn't transfer power? Or was it just people not asking for help in time, or not realizing the help was available?

I guess my question boils down to: was this like Chernobyl, where the Russians threw everything at the problem and could only mitigate the damage? Or was it like Katrina and the Superdome, where the capability was there but mismanaged?
posted by BeeDo at 10:40 AM on July 5, 2012


...which turn out to be an event that occurs with great regularity every few hundred years, and for which there was plenty of evidence.

That's awesome, because in the long, long history of humans using nuclear power we have defined that...

Oh wait, we've been using it for less than eighty years? Oh wait, in the hundreds of reactors presently used, there have been many, many accidents? What, less than ten?

We just have to build those same reactors with the old ass technologies from the 50's? We suddenly can't build any reactors that are more efficient, cheaper, and vastly safer than ones built in the 50-60's?

We just have to accept that one reactor is the exact same as any other reactor safety wise? Well shit, it says reactor. Therefore the reactor powering a nuclear sub is the same reactor as Fukushima and the same reactor as the one at Chernobyl and the same one under the gym at Chicago U. Glad to see that that's the reality of the situation.

Damn straight, I'm gonna blame the tsunami. The reactors didn't fail, the old ass electrical cooling parts failed. When they were engulfed by a massive tsunami.

Solar will work when we can either figure out the battery/transmission problem or when we can figure out the cloud problem. Before that, it simply isn't functional as a wide base of electricity power generation.
posted by Sphinx at 10:44 AM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Solar will work when we can either figure out the battery/transmission problem or when we can figure out the cloud problem.

Solar does work in cloudy Germany as as growing part of the integrated electricity grid.

Batteries are only of major concern with regard to motor vehicles. Even there, for the average car user, existing battery technology is adequate.
posted by No Robots at 10:48 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


The best solution I've heard to solving the battery problem with solar is to go with basically a kinetic battery: you use excess electricity generated during the day to drive a pump which pumps water uphill into a holding tank. Then at night you let that water out and run it through a hydroelectric turbine to get the power back. Repeat daily.
posted by Scientist at 10:50 AM on July 5, 2012


Also for large-scale solar power I'm a fan of thermal solar rather than photovoltaic. Rather than mining a bunch of nasty rare-earth metals and growing crystals and other expensive stuff, you just build a bunch of parabolic mirrors and point them at some water. The water heats up into steam and you're off and running. Cheaper to build, cheapeer to maintain, and less manufacturing pollution than with photovoltaic solar.
posted by Scientist at 10:55 AM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


The biggest point of failure in these systems is the externalisation of negative outcomes. Actors must be held responsible for the negative outcomes as well as positive ones. Then the question becomes: how does one reduce externalisation in these complex, multi-layered systems that involve private and public sectors at multiple levels? Who should be responsible?

Thinking on a very negative systemic axis, one could say that the entire nation of Japan has absorbed the externalities of poorly engineered, poorly overseen and poorly regulated nuclear power -- both positively in paying less for power, and negatively in making portions of their land uninhabitable for millennia. The biggest problem with this issue is the disproportionate burden absorbed by those affected by the failure.

One could imagine, unkindly, people living a thousand km away from Fukushima being perfectly happy with the way this scenario played out. If their personal choice is between paying 2x for power for a 3 sigma safe power grid rather than a 2 sigma safe grid, knowing the odds are really low that they personally would have to pay the penalty for failures on a less safe grid, how many Mk.1 standard humans would be willing to pay more simply to reduce the risk for others, and not for themselves?

These questions and arguments and battles come up time and again where one asks people to pay for things they personally see no benefit from but that do provide a benefit for society as a whole. Like in my area where the suburbanites fought long and hard against a billion dollar light rail transit system that would (in a shallow view) simply help those who lived and worked in the core.

It's the same argument, the exact same argument. Why should I pay more for your obvious first tier benefit -- not caring about follow-on second and third tier benefits that affect everyone. E.g. in a the transit debate, the system would make the downtowns more vibrant, attracting more employers, leading to more opportunities for everyone. (Try to get them to build sidewalks, even, they won't do it: "my kids play in my yard, not my street, and I drive everywhere, why should I pay for sidewalks?")

If one can solve this argument, or at least figure out how to characterize it as harmful and learn how to discuss it rationally, I think we'll be a lot closer to being able to manage these complex systems.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:55 AM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Solar does work in cloudy Germany as as growing part of the integrated electricity grid.

I should have included it in the post more clearly, but I meant as a baseline power generator. Germany used to use a mainly nuclear baseline with some solar and a tiny amount of coal/oil IIRC. Although I really haven't familiarized myself with what has changed since everybody's political knee jerked when the Fukishima tsunami happened.

I seem to remember Merkel indicating that they were going to shut down some older nuclear plants even though no wave in the world could reach central Germany. Why can't Germany build newer, safer higher tech, negative pressure plants? I don't know.

And we need batteries to store the solar electricity for times when the sun isn't shining. As a species, our battery technology is woeful at best.
posted by Sphinx at 10:56 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


It has been said (I don't know if it's really true) that the ancient Romans required the designer/builder of a bridge to submit to being staked to the ground under it while the bridge itself was loaded up with heavy wagons. The idea being that, knowing this ceremony would take place, the builder would be diligent during the design and construction.

Would it be so politically impossible to do something similar with nuclear power? To require the top executives (and their families) to live in a luxury block of flats located very close to the plant, for example?
posted by Western Infidels at 10:56 AM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


The sequence was the reactors scrammed, the transmission lines to other power plants were washed away, the diesel fuel for the main backup generators was contaminated by the tsunami, locally stored portable backup generators were destroyed by the tsunami, and the general chaos made it impossible to deliver and hook up new portable generators before the damage was done.

The plant was "protected" by a sea wall which would have been adequate for the largest tsunami ever observed in modern times. There was plenty of evidence that larger tsunamis would occasionally appear, and had planning been done the plant would probably have been OK, just like the town of Fudai wose oversized seawall was widely considered an expensive folly until it saved their asses.
posted by localroger at 10:57 AM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


The best solution I've heard to solving the battery problem with solar is to go with basically a kinetic battery: you use excess electricity generated during the day to drive a pump which pumps water uphill into a holding tank. Then at night you let that water out and run it through a hydroelectric turbine to get the power back. Repeat daily.

The problem with that is it requires a large body of water (not always readily available in places with lots of sun and cheap land, like the desert) and a big elevation difference (also not always readily available). Oh, and you can't really do anything with the water except run it up and down hill. It won't be able to support much wildlife, since the water level is constantly fluctuating.
posted by jedicus at 11:02 AM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Germany is looking at 50% solar by 2050 under a programme that started before Fukishima.

To call the anti-nuclear response to Fukishima knee-jerk is really dismissing valid concerns that many have been expressing for decades.

Ultimately, the goal is a global electricity grid that would eliminate the problem of night time generation.
posted by No Robots at 11:03 AM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


This has to be a multi-step process. Solar isn't mentioned, because it's not a real option to replace any other method yet.

In the short term, more natural gas. In the medium term nuclear. Long term, improved alternative enegry methods that need to be invested in and developed during the earlier stages.

Our current path, sadly, it argue about so we don't do anything and keep using oil at an ever growing rate. We'll have a panic rush to nuclear around peak oil (since that's all we will have ready to step in, since we're not investing in anything else). Hopefully that's before the Great Oil War, but who knows. The mid-21st century is going to be very hot, and our a/c is going to be powered by some very hastily built reactors.
posted by spaltavian at 11:03 AM on July 5, 2012


I seem to remember Merkel indicating that they were going to shut down some older nuclear plants even though no wave in the world could reach central Germany.

The problem is not the mishap you anticipate. Germany doesn't build in tsunami protection because they don't expect tsunamis. We are actually pretty good at designing safety systems for hazards which are predicted. It's the hazards that haven't been predicted that get you. And in the case of many older plants, there are hazards that are known now such as corrosion or single-point failures in control systems that weren't known when the plants were built.

The general anti-nuclear philosophy is based on the idea that there will always be unanticipated hazards.
posted by localroger at 11:04 AM on July 5, 2012


Sorry, Germany is looking at 25% solar by 2050. See the wiki.
posted by No Robots at 11:04 AM on July 5, 2012


Sphinx and/or other nuke experts and/or boosters: using the idea that risk is defined by something like

(probability of failure) X (magnitude of failure consequences)

what is known about the social/technical risk profile of thorium cycle reactors?
posted by mondo dentro at 11:09 AM on July 5, 2012


....mkay.

Please don't do that.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:18 AM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


The best solution I've heard to solving the battery problem with solar is to go with basically a kinetic battery: you use excess electricity generated during the day to drive a pump which pumps water uphill into a holding tank. Then at night you let that water out and run it through a hydroelectric turbine to get the power back. Repeat daily.

There are power plants in current operation which do exactly this -- Dinorwig in Wales is one (and was originally built to save night-time power from nuclear plants!) Dinorwig uses massive pumps to move water to a reservoir at the top of the mountain during off-peak times, then lets it run back down to generate power at peak times, thus preventing brownouts/blackouts from short-term demand spikes or power plant malfunctions.

From standstill, a single 450-tonne generator can synchronise and achieve full load in approximately 75 seconds. With all six units synchronised and spinning-in-air (compressed air), 0MW to 1800MW load can be achieved in approximately 16 seconds. Once running, the station can provide power for up to 6 hours before running out of water.
posted by vorfeed at 11:42 AM on July 5, 2012


For reference there's also at least one example of an old salt mine being used as an immense, underground pressure chamber which is pressurized during off-peak load time and used to supplement/resell the power during peak-load time. Same principle as the hydro pumping stations, different application.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:52 AM on July 5, 2012


"This means that all of Japan's reactors are vulnerable and require retro-fitting, calling into question the hasty decision of the (Prime Minister Yoshihiko) Noda cabinet to restart reactors before getting the lessons of Fukushima," said Jeffrey Kingston, Asia studies director at Temple University in Tokyo.

Kingston is a great guy and everything, but is he really qualified to talk about retro-fitting etc etc, or the combined vulnerabilities of Japanese nuclear power plants?

Anyway, for the people who consistently call Japanese society "robotic" and insular, I'm going to point them in the direction of the report that gen linked to, an official report presented to and on behalf of the National Diet of Japan that uses some pretty harsh language.

What happened in Japan can happen anywhere else.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:56 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


The McIntosh, Alabama CAES plant requires 2.5 MJ of electricity and 1.2 MJ lower heating value (LHV) of gas for each megajoule of energy output.*

I grew up not too far from this plant which is located in a hub area for power generation for Southern Company (which two/three generations of my family have worked for) and you wouldn't even know it was there if you passed it, compared to all the other huge power plants/industries in the area. That said, the energy conversion rates are about what I'd expect with going from electrical --> mechanical --> potential (storage) --> mechanical --> electrical, it's not good but by shifting the load from peak to off peak you can apparently do some good.

posted by RolandOfEld at 11:56 AM on July 5, 2012


The best solution I've heard to solving the battery problem with solar is to go with basically a kinetic battery: you use excess electricity generated during the day to drive a pump which pumps water uphill into a holding tank

It's something that is also grafted onto hydro-electric dams - they already have the uphill water-holding reservoir and the hydro-generation turbine. That's the expensive stuff done, free - just add pumps.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:57 AM on July 5, 2012


Regarding big picture stuff, energy conservation (efficiency improvements, load reduction) is still very cheap, at least according to studies like this one, which puts it at 3.5 cents per kwh (not vouching for the methodology, mind you). In a time where economic stimulus would be most welcome, this could be a real boon. Of course, I'm not holding my breath.
posted by mondo dentro at 12:07 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ultimately, the goal is a global electricity grid that would eliminate the problem of night time generation.
posted by No Robots


You bring a powerline around half the planet and even a large nuke plant won't be able to power a toaster.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 12:53 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


That article is about efficiency—and while it does consider how much energy we waste to derive a given usable benefit, the article doesn't question the extent of that benefit. By far the greatest resource we have available to address both the flattening of fossil fuel supply and the risks inherent in all large scale energy schemes is to scale down our appetite for the product of concentrated energy from all sources. Go to bed when the sun goes down, make food and goods close to home, bring back the home economy and quit commuting, replace power appliances by handwork, and generally get rid of the growth-based economy that is almost universally taken as normative.

Demand reduction doesn't mean going "back to the dark ages"—that favorite boogeyman—but current global population is in no way sustainable either. The humane way to accomplish contraction down to a sustainable level is gradually. If we can't manage that, politically and economically, we can look forward to more Fukushimas as the infrastructure required to run nuke plants somewhat safely erodes further and we plunge ahead both with known killers like coal and with increasingly complex technologies as yet undeveloped (and unsullied by their unforeseen failures or unintended consequences).
posted by maniabug at 12:53 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]




You bring a powerline around half the planet and even a large nuke plant won't be able to power a toaster.
Today, research shows the efficient distance of ultra-high voltage (UHV) transmission to be 7000 kilometers for direct current, and 4000 kilometers for alternating current. This would allow for power interchange between North and South hemispheres, as well as East and West.--Global Energy Network Institute
posted by No Robots at 1:03 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


maniabug:

It is indeed strange (well, depressing) that energy production seems to be one of the few areas of engineering in which load reduction is treated almost like an extraneous issue in system design. Compare the situation to any time of transportation engineering, for example.
posted by mondo dentro at 1:04 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


there is a wonderful book Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air

available for free as html or pdf

If your goal is to close old dangerous nuclear power plants and dramatically reduce emissions there is no simple solution.
posted by rcdc at 1:05 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Thanks, rcdc!
posted by mondo dentro at 1:07 PM on July 5, 2012


That's really important, No Robots. Many of the current difficulties around energy generation and use could be significantly reduced with long distance UHV transmission. Many arguments about solar are often shot down by people handwaving off the idea of panels in Arizona running heat pumps in Seattle, or wave harvesters off New Foundland charging up electric cars in New Jersey but that's exactly the sort of thing we need to be doing. If nuke plants were moved to unpopulated areas, failure modes would be less catastrophic -- though this isn't a vote for building crappy plants, but rather building plants where the "black swan" events don't result in tremendous loss of life.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:09 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


The disturbance caused by even remote nuclear accidents transcends near-term loss of [human] life. Just how big a wreck, lasting for thousands of years, are we to make before we are expected to wean ourselves off air conditioning? New Jersey needs to cut back on the cars.
posted by maniabug at 1:18 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whoa whoa whoa, who said anything about taking away my air conditioning? That dog won't hunt, monsignor.
posted by BeeDo at 1:50 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just how big a wreck, lasting for thousands of years, are we to make before we are expected to wean ourselves off air conditioning?

You say "wean ourselves off air conditioning" as if this would not mean literally abandoning several metropolis areas in the Southwest. The disturbance caused by that would also transcend near-term loss of human life (which is exactly what would happen if we "weaned" ourselves off air conditioning, yet continued to try to live in places like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and sometimes Boston). I think we should concern ourselves with low-hanging fruit before we start haranguing people about abandoning basic comforts.

Besides, the knock-on effects of this kind of change are not insignificant. Around here people use swamp coolers if they don't have central air... and swamp coolers are a huge waste of water, which is a larger local environmental problem than power generation is. If we simply told people to cut out AC use, we could easily end up with a negative outcome. On the other hand, if we could get people to build houses which are naturally cool in the summer, we could have our air conditioning and lower both water and electricity use...

I think we should approach the problem as one of infrastructure, not individual behavior. Build houses and cities which make it easy for people to save energy, and they will -- fail to do so, and they won't. Spontaneous acts like "New Jersey needs to cut back on the cars" will not happen short of actual need, which is bound to be brutal and painful... but if privately-owned cars are no longer the best and easiest way to get around, people will adopt more energy-efficient behaviors on their own. For instance, I think a zipcar-like fleet of instantly-summonable self-driving cars would be a better fix for the American transportation problem than any amount of alternate transportation, whether centralized or human-powered. Self-driving cars work with existing infrastructure, and people could easily be convinced that they were much more high-class™ than the old way -- just like having your own driver! That's a tried-and-true path to mass behavior change, whereas "stop using cars because nature" simply isn't.

Change needs to start from a human-behavior standpoint, not an ideological one.
posted by vorfeed at 2:03 PM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


maniabug,

Conservation is important, but let's not pretend that driving less or sweating more is enough to solve the problem.

http://www.wri.org/image/view/9528/_original

Road traffic only accounts for 20% of emissions in the US. Residential power and heat accounts for 15%. The US in it's entirety is responsible for 18% of emissions globally.

Even with aggressive conservation global per capita energy consumption is going to be growing for a long long time.
posted by rcdc at 2:06 PM on July 5, 2012


BeeDo: ...who said anything about taking away my air conditioning? That dog won't hunt, monsignor.

vorfeed: You say "wean ourselves off air conditioning" as if this would not mean literally abandoning several metropolis areas in the Southwest.

I would respectfully suggest that no one cares about having AC. They care about being cool in the summer (and warm in the winter). We have old technology that can massively reduce the amount of AC that's needed. It's called insulation. It is technically possible to build homes that require almost no heating and cooling energy. And they're not strange or weird. I've been in several local homes that have almost no thermal load, and they're nice, conventional-looking houses. And this requires virtually no change in "infrastructure". It just requires us to stop thinking that the way we do things now is the only way to do them.

Not saying there aren't challenges to getting that done, but it is easily possible. And it probably would cost way less as a percentage of GDP to do that than to build nuke plants (or massive solar plants, for that matter).
posted by mondo dentro at 2:08 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


It would be great if this thread could be more about the human factors issues around grand-scale projects rather than another pro/anti nuke dirty bomb.

In that vein, I'd suggest the following plan of action for countries that have decided to pursue new nuclear power plants:

Step one: Hire Electricite de France to build and run everything.

Step two: Buy a dog.

Step three: Any time a local industry agitates for work on building or management, send the dog to bite the CEO and any cooperating politicians right on the junk.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:13 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I understand, but I don't think that rebuilding almost every house here in Houston, Texas is really "no change in 'infrastructure'".

It is a point not brought up often enough that our very own building codes make things worse. I'm not talking about the safety ones, rather things like "minimum habitable size". In my city you cannot build a new house smaller than 1500 sq. ft. There's also "setback" requirements, which mean you have to devote part of your property to a front yard.

It is a case of good intentions paving the road to hot sticky hell.

I am working in my community to implement the following two changes for new construction:

1. Setback requirements should be measured to the inside of the exterior wall. Thus if you want to build your house with 6 foot thick walls for insulation, you are not penalizing yourself with a greatly reduced interior volume.

2. New houses must have enough solar power generation to equal the real world air conditioning load. This would drive increased insulation, as that is cheaper than solar panels. The final bit of A/C needed could then be run without impact, as it would not be a load on the power network.
posted by BeeDo at 2:20 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


I would respectfully suggest that no one cares about having AC. They care about being cool in the summer (and warm in the winter).

This is why I went on to suggest that passive cooling/heating is the ideal solution. However, the idea that getting everyone to adopt these building methods isn't "infrastructure" is short-sighted in the extreme. As BeeDo points out, our current homes are built the way they're built for legal reasons, and those reasons are not within the individual-behavior bailiwick. This is even more true with respect to commercial buildings, and these also contribute more waste than residential homes do -- getting Wal-Mart to move to passively-cooled-and-heated stores is certainly a question of infrastructure, just as telling Wal-Mart how wide they have to build their entryway is.
posted by vorfeed at 2:38 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Good changes.

Minimum habitable size? Tell that to this guy.

There will be changes to infrastructure and negative outcomes, but of course we're not talking about evacuating Phoenix or rebuilding a whole city of houses at once. The question is how big the changes, how fast, and what the tradeoffs are to varying deliberate response strategies, and whence the impetus behind those strategies. Much depends on how far into the future we look, and which of our culture's core mistaken assumptions we think we have the luxury to hang on to. Nuclear cheerleading seems counterproductive to me, as does our insistence that sustained growth is normal.
posted by maniabug at 2:43 PM on July 5, 2012


Straight to hell with your nuclear. Straight to hell with not being able to go back to your home, EVER. Straight to hell with your insane radioactive-for-thousands-of-years waste fuel, sitting there at reactor number four, just waiting for the next earthquake to fall apart. Fuck all that shit.

But foremost, straight to hell with your TEPCO and your government.

Fukushima is not a failure of nuclear technology, it's a failure of political and economic control structures. Done properly, nuclear is safer and cleaner than coal, but it kills me to think that maybe we can't trust anyone to do it right, even though the technology and the expertise exist.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:47 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Nukes don't kill: people kill. Riiiight.
posted by No Robots at 2:49 PM on July 5, 2012


Done properly, nuclear is safer and cleaner than coal,

The challenge that gets completely ignored is how to store waste for 100,000 years - longer than recorded human civilizations to date.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:24 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


The challenge that gets completely ignored is how to store waste for 100,000 years - longer than recorded human civilizations to date.

Yep. The nuclear fad will be seen as the biggest crime of a criminal century.
posted by No Robots at 3:31 PM on July 5, 2012


It's a made-up challenge. We don't insist that any other kind of dangerous waste be sequestered until it is harmless, so it isn't obvious why nuke waste is the exception.

Many kinds of dangerous waste will, after alll, remain harmful for far longer than 100000 years.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:31 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Tell that to this guy.

I have his book, that's where I learned about minimum size requirements. I love those houses, if I'd known that idea existed when I was younger I would absolutely have built one. I lived for a couple years in a boat instead, which was awesome, but since boats are so poorly insulated my A/C electrical bill was insane.
posted by BeeDo at 3:52 PM on July 5, 2012


But foremost, straight to hell with your TEPCO and your government.

I'll copy and paste from my comment upthread:

You think it'll be different anywhere else in the world next time this happens?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:20 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


To be fair, the people who think this is purely a Japanese problem or that the technology itself is somehow infallible are also post-structuralists who reject dynamic systems theory.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:36 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a made-up challenge. We don't insist that any other kind of dangerous waste be sequestered until it is harmless, so it isn't obvious why nuke waste is the exception.

Nuclear waste really is in a class by itself, both a chemical and a radiological nightmare. Lots of heavy metals which form soluble salts, lots of long-half-life isotopes with a nasty tendency to bioaccumulate. And unlike most toxins it's not at all obvious at first glance how dangerous the stuff is, because it looks inert and kills relatively slowly so you aren't likely to associate the general malaise killing your village with the specific event of opening a certain nifty cave or drilling a well near that YUK sign you completely don't understand.

Sealing it up in glass blocks is a nice start but how do you assure that no lapidarist 20,000 years hence will decide they're exotic and pretty enough to cut apart to make jewelry, a process that involves making a crapload of fine dust?

Yeah, there are other waste problems -- the sludgy pits where they store water-stabilized coal ash are a particular horror -- but those things tend to at least be recognizable for what they are. Nuclear waste isn't. That's not a made-up problem, and most nuclear waste doesn't even glow.
posted by localroger at 4:53 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


You think it'll be different anywhere else in the world next time this happens?

Yes. Of course it will be different. Chernobyl and Fukushima were tremendously different, and the next time will be a whole different thing entirely, but still a deadly nightmare. But I think my point fell through the cracks somewhere, because I'm not advocating using nuclear: I'm saying fuck it, we can't use it, but not because the technology is inherently dangerous --- because the people running the show can't be trusted to do it right.

The challenge that gets completely ignored is how to store waste for 100,000 years - longer than recorded human civilizations to date.

Bury it in a hole far from inhabited areas and far from the underground water table. It's not a great solution, but in a lot of ways it's better than the tons of pollution thrown into the air by coal burning plants. Of course, clean green energy would be better all around, but those technologies can't quite supply the world's demand yet, so we still have to choose one kind of poison or another.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 5:17 PM on July 5, 2012


but not because the technology is inherently dangerous

Wrongitty wrong wrong wrong-oh! All kindsa wrongy wrongness!

I mean, really, if a technology that results in waste products that will be deadly for 100,000 years isn't "inherently dangerous", then just what the hell is?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:31 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yup, people coming out of the woodwork to defined nuclear and bash solar, there's a shock.
The problem is that if you look at the ecological and health cost of the currently in-use power generation solutions, you become a nuclear supporter
Sure, if you make a vast swath of land uninhabitable it's great for nature. Not so great for the people living in that area, though. The radiation levels are low and it isn't too bad for animals in the region, life is thriving in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, for example. You wouldn't want to live there yourself though.

Solar energy can easily provide all our daytime electricity needs. Once that's taken care of, we can see about using nuclear to replace coal/natural gas for night time use, if that would be cheaper then building a global grid with HVAC lines.
I like how Germany's reaction to the news that massive Tsunamis are bad for nuclear power plants by shutting own theirs... and are now importing their power from dodgy Eastern European reactors. Great logical moves there guys!
Yeah, it's certainly logical for them since there is no chance that the reactors in other countries could blow up in Germany. I see you've conveniently ignored the massive amount of solar energy installs going on in Germany now, they'll be generating more energy from solar then nuclear in just a few years.
For each person killed by nuclear power generation, 4,000 die from coal. This is adjusted for how much power is produced by each method of power generation.
What bullshit. Where's the real peer reviewed stats to back up those numbers? As far as I know, they all come from some blog post made years ago (before fukushima) that took environmental effects of coal but not the environmental effects of Chernobyl.
Nuclear panic eroded funding to the point where we must rely on 40 year old tech and buildings. That is a very significant problem, but 100% man-made.
Unbelievable bullshit. Are we supposed to be building and then tearing down nuclear plants every 20 years or something? Of course if we build a reactor it's going to be in use 40 years in the future. If it wasn't safe 40 years ago it should never have been built. This "The tech was old" argument is by far the stupidest one. 40 years from now, the stuff we built today will be 40 years old. Is it going to become less safe over time?

Our rail systems are hundreds of years old. The 747 is 50 years old. Lots of stuff is old and safe.
These kind of events are inevitable, no matter what power generation system we are using.
Except Solar, obviously.
Solar will work when we can either figure out the battery/transmission problem or when we can figure out the cloud problem. Before that, it simply isn't functional as a wide base of electricity power generation.
Yeah, again, bullshit. Amazingly someone in another thread actually said "no one is denigrating solar", yet, clearly it happens all the fucking time from pro-nuclear advocates. It's so fucking bizarre. Why is it that some people are totally unwilling to see the obvious truth that solar energy is cheap and works. It's actually way cheaper than nuclear at this point. There isn't even any reason to debate it, Solar is being installed all over the world at a massive rate. I'm pretty sure more solar is coming online every month then nuclear.

It isn't just willful blindness about what's potentially possible, but bizarre denial about what's actually happening in the real world at this very moment. And thankfully it is happening, despite the fact that nuke lovers don't seem to believe it's possible.
Also for large-scale solar power I'm a fan of thermal solar rather than photovoltaic. Rather than mining a bunch of nasty rare-earth metals and growing crystals and other expensive stuff, you just build a bunch of parabolic mirrors and point them at some water. The water heats up into steam and you're off and running. Cheaper to build, cheapeer to maintain, and less manufacturing pollution than with photovoltaic solar.
*sigh* First of all, the price of solar panels are so cheap now that it costs less to build a PV solar park then a solar thermal plant at the same wattage. The largest solar installs are PV.

Secondly, you don't need any rare earth metals to build polysilicon solar panels. You need silicon (from sand) plus trace amounts of phosphorus and boron to make the panels into semiconductors (same as you do with microchips). There are a few competing technologies that use other elements to make thin film panels, but by far the most common solar panels are simple silicon devices.
This has to be a multi-step process. Solar isn't mentioned, because it's not a real option to replace any other method yet.
Except for the fact that it totally fucking is! See what I mean? People just state these ridiculous "facts" without any justification whatsoever claiming that Solar "just won't work" (without bothering to specify the reason) and then, oh, we totally need nuclear. See what I mean?
You bring a powerline around half the planet and even a large nuke plant won't be able to power a toaster.
Yeah, no links no explanation, no nothing to prove your point. And obviously it had to be that way, since you're totally wrong. Lookup HVDC (And by the way, the distance between North America and northern Europe is not that far, certainly within range of existing HVDC lines)
Whoa whoa whoa, who said anything about taking away my air conditioning? That dog won't hunt, monsignor.
AC is the easiest thing to solve with solar. After all, the whole reason you need to cool your house is because of the excess solar energy heating it up during the day!

Heating during the winter is a bigger problem when you're talking about solar. IN that case you need to replace not electricity use, but also tons and tons of natural gas and fuel oil. I think more insulation is probably the best way to solve that problem.
posted by delmoi at 5:49 PM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


Sure, if you make a vast swath of land uninhabitable it's great for nature. Not so great for the people living in that area, though.

The reasons people like me want nuclear is because nuclear does not make the entirety of the earth's surface uninhabitable for humanity.

Making everything fucked up is the status quo right now. I see nuclear as a practical way, with known and addressable risks, to sustain our existence environmentally and politically until we can get something better: batteries or fusion.

I say politically because one thing that pisses me off almost every time people talk about renewable energy is that there are billions of people in developing nations right now that both deserve and demand better living conditions.

Moving towards renewables now, as I see it, amounts to a giant austerity program for at least half the world, if not the entire world. I don't know if we can survive that, but I'm pretty sure we wouldn't even be able to get started on it before it was far too late.

All of which brings us back to what I hoped this discussion would be: how do you change social structures so that:

People don't rig the LIBOR,
The social and political side of Nuclear Reactor safety is addressed,
Energy austerity will be embraced internationally,
People stop fucking shit up,
And hopefully also prevent delmoi from implying that renewables can supply a full load of power anytime soon and that therefore people who say solar can't offer a complete solution are silly, or implying that the failure of (to make an analogy) the titanic and the improvement of ships through the years means that ships should never be used, etc etc etc.
posted by tychotesla at 6:34 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Uh, hopefully it's obvious I should have said "moving towards only renewables now".
posted by tychotesla at 6:57 PM on July 5, 2012


I say politically because one thing that pisses me off almost every time people talk about renewable energy is that there are billions of people in developing nations right now that both deserve and demand better living conditions.

People in the Sahara region stand to be among the greatest beneficiaries of the solar economy. See Desertec.

People who say solar can't offer a complete solution are indeed silly. If Germany alone is looking at 25% solar by 2050, imagine what would be accomplished if there were a real international push.
posted by No Robots at 7:06 PM on July 5, 2012


No Robots,

Solar energy is not a complete solution because it only generates power during the day, and is subject to season, weather, and latitude, and space. The Sahara is pretty much the ideal place for solar in all those respects. But even there you want a base load power plant that can take up the slack in case, for example, a volcano erupts nearby. Or in case the sun sets.

25% solar by 2050?

Do we still have that much time, that at 2050 we could still be only partway towards a carbon neutral world?

In the meantime, will we have to convince, for example, the poor in China and India (about 1/3rd of our population) not to increase their carbon consumption? How about the emerging Africa and South America?

I'm not optimistic about how much time we have. I'm not optimistic that I have the right, the standing, or the ability to convince someone not to use even half the power I use.

I am optimistic that eventually we will have renewables and either relatively waste free nuclear or fusion. I am optimistic that we can, if we really put our mind to it, have relatively (compared to every alternative) safe nuclear power that can tide us until then. Even if it means we double the cost of nuclear plants, it'd be well worth it.

As I hinted above, I'm particularly interested in this because I see one of the fundamental problems here as effectively identical to the problem we've been having with finance: how do you create a social structure that works.
posted by tychotesla at 8:20 PM on July 5, 2012


tychotesla:

You want to help the poor of the world by investing our resources and efforts in dangerous energy systems, rather than pursue development of benign systems that would achieve the same output in the same time? I don't think that Tycho or Tesla would approve, sir. Perhaps you should stick to consumption, and leave production to others.
posted by No Robots at 8:32 PM on July 5, 2012


tychotesla:
I'm not optimistic about how much time we have.

Neither am I. But, if you're talking:

social structures so that:

People don't rig the LIBOR,
The social and political side of Nuclear Reactor safety is addressed,
Energy austerity will be embraced internationally,
People stop fucking shit up,


you're talking 3050, not 2050.
posted by carping demon at 8:52 PM on July 5, 2012


25% solar by 2050

That's 38 years away. 38 years is two generations. 38 years ago was 1976. I am all for solar (and wind, and what-all else) but we should be looking at fault-tolerant nuclear reactor designs back here in the present, because we have learned a great deal about technology and engineering and control systems since the last major round of nuclear power plant building, and if nothing else it might be good to replace existing nuclear power stations with safer ones which produce less waste.

You want to help the poor of the world by investing our resources and efforts in dangerous energy systems, rather than pursue development of benign systems that would achieve the same output in the same time?

Sez you. I'm not convinced.
posted by anigbrowl at 8:54 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


rather than pursue development of benign systems that would achieve the same output in the same time

It's the same output and time only if we make risky assumptions about technology, cost, and politics.

Technology will fall into line eventually. But I'm not willing to bet the world on politics, especially when cost is still a big factor.
posted by tychotesla at 8:55 PM on July 5, 2012


The fact is that the world is marching toward solar, and away from nuclear. Anonymous Internet caviling will not change that. Welcome to the third millennium.
posted by No Robots at 8:58 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


From a different perspective than Flapjax in an 'on the ground' kind of way, my wife and I don't have kids. We're not likely to now, largely because of Fukushima. We're not likely to leave Japan (bizarrely, we are better off here than we would be back home), and so we're just here, living here every day. I check what prefecture the vegetables I buy come from, but Japan's had a number of labelling scandals in recent years, so I'm putting blind faith into a notoriously broken system. What's the alternative? I still have to live, right? And moving? 3 years into a 35 year mortage?

Our heads are as deep into the sand as we can physically force them. The nuclear rods Flapjax referenced are just sitting there in a cracked containment pool, at the top of a building whose structural integrity is questionable at best. Readings in one of the buildings as of a week or two ago were at the 1 sievert and hour range, or pretty much death by horrible wasting sickness. We're just crossing our fingers with each new earthquake (and there are still a lot of them), that it won't be the one that knocks down number four.

I couldn't care less that blame is being assigned anymore. No one will ever be punished in any way that can actual undo what happened, and I doubt any punishment could ever be severe enough to prevent the kind of coruption that enabled this clusterfuck in the first place. I'd much rather the time and effort involved in all of the finger pointing was spent trying to do something to fix this.

I'm not optimistic. It's hard to be optimistic about a clean-up operation that actually relies on the invention of technologies that don't currently exist. If you want me, I'll be the guy over there, just trying not to think.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:05 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


The fact is that the world is marching toward solar, and away from nuclear. Anonymous Internet caviling will not change that. Welcome to the third millennium.

Oh really?
In all, more than 150 new reactors will be completed by the end of 2016, with another 330 proposals awaiting approval, mostly in China and India. Twenty of those proposals are for reactors in the U.S., another four in the U.K.
Also, I'm no more anonymous than you, and while I've been a strong supporter of solar power and demand reduction (eg by insulating your house) since growing up in the late 70s, I don't think smartass remarks are going to meet our power needs over the next half-century.
posted by anigbrowl at 9:12 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, we'll see. With Germany out of the nuclear racket, and Japan leaning that way, I expect others will follow. We'll see if the proposals for new U.S. plants are actually approved. China and India are desperate for power, but China is investing heavily in solar.

It isn't smartass to take a hard stand against nuclear power. I'm sorry for you that your energy activism hasn't led you to reject the nuclear option. All I can hope for is that you will have the same change of heart that I did. A negative reaction to Fukishima was part of it, but so was a positive reaction to recent developments in the solar field. I'm betting that solar does win out, and that nuclear will soon be regarded as a nightmare from which we have awoken.
posted by No Robots at 9:35 PM on July 5, 2012


Hey, they were good enough for the Shah of Iran, they're good enough for me!

Meanwhile, this just in: Radioactive river mud threatens lakes, Tokyo Bay
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:48 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


It isn't smartass to take a hard stand against nuclear power.

I was referring to your comment of 'welcome to the third millenium,' as you know.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:09 AM on July 6, 2012


Nuke lovers are a lot like global warming deniers or evolution deniers. But the totally fucking bizarre thing is that they are denying something good: namely the fact that solar is clean and cheap way to generate the majority of the electricity we need, which is daytime electricity (particularly for stuff like air conditioning).

It takes a pretty serious effort to deny reality in order to not believe it. But what would drive someone to deny something good? It's not enough to build risky nuclear reactors, you also want to prevent people from building clean, safe solar.
The reasons people like me want nuclear is because nuclear does not make the entirety of the earth's surface uninhabitable for humanity.
Wow that's a hell of an endorsement! Nuclear: It does not make all of the earth uninhabitable! Of course global warming won't make the entire earth uninhabitable either, at least not based on current projections of a few degrees centigrade over the next few hundred years. It won't be good, but it's not going to be uninhabitable
I say politically because one thing that pisses me off almost every time people talk about renewable energy is that there are billions of people in developing nations right now that both deserve and demand better living conditions.

Moving towards renewables now, as I see it, amounts to a giant austerity program for at least half the world, if not the entire world. I don't know if we can survive that, but I'm pretty sure we wouldn't even be able to get started on it before it was far too late.
Oh, so they should use a more expensive power source instead? Besides, what makes you think there will ever be nuclear power allowed in the third world? Iran is trying to develop a nuclear power program. How's that going? The first world has pretty much restricted nuclear power for its own use.

But beyond that. The entire comment and sentiment is premised on the idea that nuclear is more cheaper. Except, it's not cheaper. Any improvement to their lives that nuclear can bring will be less than the improvement you get from solar.

Because you get more energy for less money. Only fossil fuel is cheaper than solar. If you want an example of a country that’s expanding its energy use right now look at china. What are they doing? Building a shitload of coal burning plants.

The other thing is that, right now, outside of the developed world, energy use is already negligible. The US has 5% of the world's population and puts out like 30% of the CO2. Solving global warming means getting the developed world to stop wasting fossil fuels. It has nothing to do with the developing world, for now.

You seem to be advocating nuclear for a completely different purpose: Generating power for the third world and developing world so they can enjoy more energy use. Except, why would they invest in nuclear when they can get more energy with less money using solar? (especially since most of the third world is in sunny locales)
And hopefully also prevent delmoi from implying that renewables can supply a full load of power anytime soon and that
You could try actually proving your point rather than just stating it over and over again. Solar is more capable then nuclear at providing all the electricity we need, in the sense that it would cost less money to do so
the titanic and the improvement of ships through the years means that ships should never be used, etc etc etc.
Are you serious? A cruise ship twice the size of the titanic sank six months ago. You know what the difference is? It didn't create an exclusion zone the size of a small country in southern Italy. People haven't figured out how to make boats totally safe. The difference is the risk is only born by people who chose to get on the boat, sinking a boat doesn't render uninhabitable the homes and property of hundreds of thousands of people.

Boats sink all the time. Planes crash all the time. They are safe but they are not perfectly safe.
That's 38 years away. 38 years is two generations. 38 years ago was 1976. I am all for solar (and wind, and what-all else) but we should be looking at fault-tolerant nuclear reactor designs back here in the present, because we have learned a great deal about technology and engineering and control systems since the last major round of nuclear power plant building, and if nothing else it might be good to replace existing nuclear power stations with safer ones which produce less waste.
Why the fuck would you replace old nuclear plants with new nuclear plants, when you could replace them with solar plants that produce more energy for less money

30, 40, 50 years ago people claimed nuclear reactors were totally safe then. The position of nuke advocates is that in the past, they were lying about how safe things were. But now, they are totally telling the truth and reactors are safer.
But boats and planes are far safer than they were decades ago as well. But they are still not totally safe. But the cost of failure is far lower than the cost of failure with nuclear.
In all, more than 150 new reactors will be completed by the end of 2016, with another 330 proposals awaiting approval, mostly in China and India. Twenty of those proposals are for reactors in the U.S., another four in the U.K.
Yeah, it's cute how you didn't bother to compare that to the rate at which solar is being installed, or the rate at which nuclear power plants are being shut down and decommissioned.

Nuclear power from fission is an obsolete technology. Solar will probably overtake it in worldwide production in a few years.
posted by delmoi at 2:46 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Shovels are in the ground in Georgia, USA, for 2x GE AP1000 reactors, the first approved in 30 years.

Spit take from the article: "Environmentalists are split..." THAT'S IT!! Let's harness the power of fissile environmentalists!
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:12 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


As other people have said, nuclear energy is "safer" than coal and other power sources if judged on the basis of total human injury and death that can be attributed to nuclear accidents vs. the secondary damage caused by emissions and pollution from other energy production technologies. The difference is that the damage caused by a nuclear plant accident, although smaller in sum than the damage caused by mining and pollution from coal (or natgas, or solar), is very centralized.

It doesn't seem to be politically palatable to go for nuclear because people find it easier to accept and ignore problems that are mild because of how they're spread, even if the problem is worse overall than if it were concentrated. It reminds me of the issues surrounding global warming.
posted by cornmander at 9:11 AM on July 6, 2012


What exactly is the damage caused by solar that is comparable to nuclear?
posted by No Robots at 9:20 AM on July 6, 2012


The difference is that the damage caused by a nuclear plant accident, although smaller in sum than the damage caused by mining and pollution from coal (or natgas, or solar), is very centralized.

posted by cornmander


You clearly have never lived near a coal plant, if you think a nuclear accident is more centralized damage.

And No Robots, if you want to be taken at least half-seriously, start addressing the many arguments against solar upthread that you have ignored.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 10:34 AM on July 6, 2012


You are, of course, free to speak vaguely about "many arguments against solar." I would rather do a google news search of solar power, and see what is actually going on right now.
posted by No Robots at 10:49 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


What is going on right now is people dying because of coal burning, and an additional unknown number are condemned to die or be forced to relocate by rising sea levels and climate change, that will keep company to the ones that have and will have radioactivity-related diseases from the significant amount of radioactivity released by coal burning.

But by all means, go read the news.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 11:08 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


But by all means, go read the news.

And advocate for solar, and against coal and nuclear.
posted by No Robots at 11:10 AM on July 6, 2012


I might get on board with nuclear once nuclear is viable without massive expensive subsidies. You find a way to generate even one watt of nuclear energy without requiring the public to shoulder millions in up-front-investment costs (never mind the actual health and safety threats and even still unacknowledged costs of waste removal and storage) and I'll get on board. But even then, I'd want a hell of a lot more than just vague reassurances that the safety issues will be dealt with properly and everyone will do the right things.

As it is, nuclear is and will continue to be an expensive boondoggle sustained in large part by Atom Age nostalgia and the stubborn refusal/temperamental inability of some science/technology enthusiasts to accept the reality that just because nuclear tech is, like, totally cool, real science, that doesn't mean the only opposition to its growth are anti-science simpletons or Luddites.

And that old nonsense about energy consumption reduction = massive die offs due to food shortages is really overplayed. That may have been true in the 1940s--50s when industrial scale agriculture was just cutting its teeth, but America (which uses more energy than anyone other than China) isn't the world's breadbasket anymore (and for that matter, neither is China).

And only a relatively small proportion of the energy/fossil fuel we use in the US is for agricultural use, despite the well-polished line so typically trotted out to "counter the liberal talking points" on the subject.

All that energy (the US and China accounting for probably around half the world's consumption between the two of us, since the US is estimated to account for about 20% of world energy consumption and China recently eclipsed the US) isn't being used to deliver desperately needed sustenance to poor street urchin children, it's being used to make cheap plastic trinkets that are meant to become impulse buys at the grocery checkout that we discard a few days later as waste plastic destined for the Pacific Trash Vortex. In fact, even though we have more than enough food to go around now, we routinely leave tons of it to rot as part of calculated commodities trading strategies, and we still often don't bother actually trying to get any excess supplies to people who might need it, so forgive me, but to claim our priority with energy consumption is to prevent hunger in this day and age is just bollocks.

If we could de-prioritize instant gratification and personal convenience just a tiny bit, we could probably reduce our current consumption by as much as 95% and still have plenty to sustain our current population levels. Hell, we could do that much if we all just agreed to drive golf carts most of the time in our day to day lives and use public transportation for longer trips.

But you know--we gotta feel that Fahrvergnugen, or else our way of life is over.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:29 PM on July 6, 2012 [3 favorites]



> Fukushima is not a failure of nuclear technology, it's a failure of political and economic control structures.
> Done properly, nuclear is safer and cleaner than coal, but it kills me to think that maybe we can't trust anyone to do
> it right, even though the technology and the expertise exist.
> posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 5:47 PM on July 5 [2 favorites +] [!]

How could it be otherwise? The tasks that face us grow and grow until they become enormous, but the people available to do them don't grow or improve, they only multiply. You can cherry-pick the workers you trust to do something critical as long as that something is of manageable dimensions. For instance, you can pull together a fantastic team of dozens, to operate just one nuclear facility. But that's a microscopically small job compared to building political and economic control structures to, oh, manage the world's energy future. For that you must have millions--and every living person on Earth has a right to be heard and have a voice in the outcome. In the end so many are participating that they make up a good random sample of the entire human race--including the dummies, the obliviously self-involved, the corrupt. Neither of these three is a small partition, either. We're being let into the future by a vast bell-curve frequency distribution.


> If we could de-prioritize instant gratification and personal convenience just a tiny bit, we could
> probably reduce our current consumption by as much as 95% and still have plenty to sustain our current
> population levels. Hell, we could do that much if we all just agreed to drive golf carts most of the
> time in our day to day lives and use public transportation for longer trips.

Couldn't agree more, and I'm working on getting that message across to the vast bell-curve frequency distribution.
posted by jfuller at 2:26 PM on July 6, 2012


You clearly have never lived near a coal plant, if you think a nuclear accident is more centralized damage.
What? I'm sure most people grew up near a coal plant. There were two in my home town, one a few blocks away.

There was no visible or noticeable effect. The only thing you could see was when, on cold days the warm air from the smoke stacks would cause steam to form.

Have you ever seen an actual coal plant? I'm guessing you probably actually do live near one.
are condemned to die or be forced to relocate by rising sea levels and climate change, that will keep company to the ones that have and will have radioactivity-related diseases from the significant amount of radioactivity released by coal burning.
Yes, and the same thing is true from the radioactive material released by Chernobyl and Fukushima - but for some reason nuclear advocates refuse to consider those deaths when comparing nuclear to other energy sources. Makes it rather difficult to take you guys seriously.

The random, fact-free solar bashing also makes you seem rather ridiculous. Again. There are no links, no real facts, no math. Just conservative-pundit level comments about "sometimes it's cloudy!!!" But that's absurd. Clouds don't block that much light, and they are localized. The less sunlight, the less power you need for AC. And even though you can still generate some electricity, if you need too you can pump power from areas where it's sunny to where it's cloudy if you need too, if you have super thick clouds. The nighttime thing is an issue as well, but it's such a remote issue, something we don't need to worry about until all our daytime power needs are met. It's a much smaller problem then global warming, or the potential fallout in the case that a nuclear plant fails.

The arguments for nuclear energy now are ridiculously weak. The boil down to two arguments: 1) The only problem with the plant was that it was hit with a Tsunami and 2) It was an old design and the new designs are totally safe.

But the central problem is that the nuclear industry wasn't supposed to be doing anything unsafe at all. Yet clearly they did. They put a plant in a region where tsunamis that size had hit in the past (of which there were clear records). As far as the design being "old", well, at one point it was new and any new plants built today will someday be old. If the old designs were unsafe, that means that the nuclear industry was lying at the time they were built - because they obviously told people at the time that the plants were safe.

It's like, some major accident happens and suddenly everything you said about safety had been a lie, but now everything say about the new plants is totally true. I don't think I ever heard a single pro-nuke advocate claim that plants like Fukushima were unsafe before it blew.

Obviously we know not to put nuclear power plants in tsunami zones. But the next failure is going to be the result of some other problem that someone else didn't think about. The rest of the world is not going to want to let you 'learn lessons' until you 'get it right' when a failure results giant exclusion zones that last for thousands of years.
posted by delmoi at 9:23 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


The nighttime thing is an issue as well, but it's such a remote issue, something we don't need to worry about until all our daytime power needs are met.

You're trying to wave away the crux of the argument for nuclear, which is that dependable base load power (you can read night time here, if you like) is supplied overwhelmingly by fossil fuels right now and alternate options are limited. That's not a remote issue at all, that's the whole point. We do need to worry about that. And that's why nuclear.

And that's not a kick at solar. Solar is amazing. I grew up in a house powered primarily by solar. It gives you a very visceral connection to energy use and solar patterns. We should be pursuing more than we are Solar, it's an important part of our future.

But while Nuclear and Solar's functionality can overlap, each provides a different sort of service. Solar is attractive because it's renewable and plentiful. Nuclear is attractive because it's dependable, and still seems to be pretty cost effective. In fact, its dependability is why it's so important, because no matter how plentiful and cheap power source [foo] is, if it can't be relied upon at all times then it can't compete to supply the base load power.

That's how we (I?) see the issue of replacing fossil fuels. Not "it could be renewables or nuclear, I like nuclear so lets dump on solar" but instead "for this half of the pie obviously we want to transition to renewables including solar, but for this other half of the pie it's gotta be either specific forms of renewables that may or may not be effective in this location, or nuclear".
posted by tychotesla at 11:45 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nuke lovers are a lot like global warming deniers or evolution deniers. But the totally fucking bizarre thing is that they are denying something good: namely the fact that solar is clean and cheap way to generate the majority of the electricity we need, which is daytime electricity (particularly for stuff like air conditioning).

Delmoi, the main reason I'm not bothering to answer any of your substantive points is that you start off every conversation by being an asshole and swearing at people. I would like to advocate for both solar and nuclear power, but I would also like the opportunity to do so without you coming into a thread being shouty about your individual viewpoint every time.

I get that you and others are angry about things like Fukushima and so forth. But guess what? I didn't build or operate any of those plants, I'm not invested in connected with anyone in the industries or governments responsible, and I'm just trying to have a grown up conversation about technology without being continually insulted for having a different opinion from you.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:30 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


[Further discussion of member/thread behavior can go to Metatalk, please... and all efforts to avoid getting personal and/or aggro greatly appreciated. Thanks. ]
posted by taz at 3:23 AM on July 7, 2012


AVP CVN: Coal vs Nuclear -- Whoever wins, we lose.
posted by localroger at 5:19 AM on July 7, 2012


I'm just trying to have a grown up conversation about technology

The original point of the post though, was that humanity has failed the technology, not that the technology had shortcomings. I think we all still need to be hugely concerned about for-profit corporations operating nukes in an unsafe manner by influencing & diluting regulatory agencies & generally failing to care about the larger implications of pushing the safety margins beyond where they should be pushed. Until there's a fundamental shift as to why these plants are operated, the technology may not be able to overcome the humanity.

Those who really want to mollify us skeptics about nuclear power would probably do better to focus on revamping the entire political structure around the ongoing operation, maintenance, regulation & subsidization of nuke plants.

"We have safe designs!" is in no way reassuring to me after Fukushima.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:44 AM on July 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


We should certainly be concerned about it - and even where we disagree, there's plenty of room to do so civilly (as you have here).
posted by anigbrowl at 5:06 PM on July 8, 2012


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