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The World's Most Dangerous Room
August 24, 2014 9:39 PM   Subscribe

Three and a half years after the most devastating nuclear accident in a generation, Fukushima Daiichi is still in crisis. Some 6,000 workers, somehow going about their jobs despite the suffocating gear they must wear for hours at a time, struggle to contain the damage. So much radiation still pulses inside the crippled reactor cores that no one has been able to get close enough to survey the full extent of the destruction.
posted by Chrysostom (69 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
While I know that the situation at Fukushima is an outlier case, what with the earthquake being coupled with the tsunami and all, growing up in the 1970s this is EXACTLY the kind of thing that the anti-nuke people were ranting about "going to happen" if nuclear energy was adopted.

I am not trying to voice any particular view by noting that, it's just interesting how much it is exactly what was being warned about.
posted by hippybear at 9:44 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


And yet nuclear fission proponents seemingly still insist on calling nuclear cheaper, safer and cleaner than anything, claiming nothing ever is supposed to go wrong, even after it does. Even in the face of entropy and probability that things always eventually go wrong, whether natural or man made, accidental or intentional.

And when it does, it only takes one or two major incidents to wipe out the "cheaper, safer and cleaner" part and eradicate any/all benefit. And this is before really addressing the long term waste storage issues.

All the while we could be building solar by the truckload. The more solar the better. A worldwide transmission grid and large scale PV scattered in a few key places could and would power the whole world with much less total cost and risk. It can be done now.

And to tangent... I'm no fan of coal, but at least coal doesn't leave an area uninhabitable for longer than the known history of modern civilization when it goes wrong. And solar definitely does not.
posted by loquacious at 9:52 PM on August 24 [15 favorites]


And to tangent... I'm no fan of coal, but at least coal doesn't leave an area uninhabitable for longer than the known history of modern civilization when it goes wrong.

Perhaps, but coal going right is making the entire planet less and less habitable.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:14 PM on August 24 [47 favorites]


I'm no fan of coal, but at least coal doesn't leave an area uninhabitable for longer than the known history of modern civilization when it goes wrong.

Well, except for submerging all the low-lying coastal areas of the entire world, where at minimum hundreds of millions of people live, sure.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:15 PM on August 24 [54 favorites]


Obligatory link to the commission's report that the article mentions, which shows incredible institutional failures to correct problems or allow for completely foreseeable events, or even to "absorb the critical lessons learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl" (In the words of the Chairman).

I'm not taking a position on nuclear energy, but for this reason I'm not sure that Fukushima adds anything new to either side of the argument.
posted by pixelrevolt at 10:28 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


And to tangent... I'm no fan of coal, but at least coal doesn't leave an area uninhabitable for longer than the known history of modern civilization when it goes wrong. And solar definitely does not.

Except that while radioactive contamination can be for a long time, contamination with heavy metals and other stable elements is actually forever. Total area rendered uninhabitable by coal mining is vastly greater than by anything nuclear related.
posted by pseudonick at 10:34 PM on August 24 [22 favorites]


Meanwhile rice grown in Fukushima has just been exported for the first time, and sold in Singapore. It was openly promoted as coming from Fukushima and sold quickly. Singapore was chosen because of its reputation for high standards of food quality: if it could sell there, it would sell anywhere.

Exports of fruit resumed in 2012.
posted by Segundus at 10:39 PM on August 24


I'm also no fan of coal, but it's also important to be realistic about what we actually CAN do with solar or wind power. We can't store it effectively, and we can't transmit it long-distance effectively. It might be able to take over domestic and small scale energy demands, it could never supply energy on the level needed by modern industry, or even moderate university scale scientific research. It's incredibly expensive to build new power facilities, and no one is eager to do so right now. Both solar power and wind power require specific geographic locations to be effective. Solar and wind power research deserves as much time and money as can be devoted to it, but we shouldn't consider them a present solution to the energy crisis. They aren't right now.

Also, coal is and has been rendering large swathes of land uninhabitable. Consider the higher prevalence of respiratory disease and cancer in pretty much any area that either mines or processes coal. (Heavy metals last far longer than radiation. People live daily in the shadow of Chernobyl. We CAN mitigate those risks with effort.) It may not be as sexy as irradiation, but all of the earthly materials for energy we've found so far are dangerous, and exposure can and often does lead to health risks or death.

It just seems to me that nuclear power has risks than can be mitigated by careful attention and regulation. Coal, as it is, cannot be less hazardous. Neither can oil.
Until we can find a way to use renewable sources of energy as a replacement for ALL energy needs, and not just as a replacement for individual buildings' or small communities' needs, we shouldn't slander one of the only replacements or stop-gaps in the short term. We literally have nothing better.

(For whatever reason, this is the thing that made me express my views on nuclear power. Sorry if it's ranty or unfounded, just wanted to get it out.)
posted by neonrev at 10:42 PM on August 24 [19 favorites]


And yet nuclear fission proponents seemingly still insist on calling nuclear cheaper, safer and cleaner than anything, claiming nothing ever is supposed to go wrong, even after it does.

"In 2008 the World Health Organization (WHO) and other organizations calculated that coal particulates pollution cause approximately one million deaths annually across the world,[5]"

Well, I guess that's nothing compared to the Fukushima deaths. What it is up to, like 2 billion now?
posted by Drinky Die at 10:47 PM on August 24 [14 favorites]


People live daily in the shadow of Chernobyl.

I'm not sure exactly what you mean. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone covers over 1000 square miles and has a current full-time population of under 200 people. If by "shadow" you mean a large swath of Europe, which fell under the cloud of released radiation released during the incident, then yes. But as far as people actually living within the area close around the power plant itself, that population is aging and dying, and has a rather low life expectancy.
posted by hippybear at 10:53 PM on August 24 [3 favorites]


Both solar power and wind power require specific geographic locations to be effective.

What? Are you under the impression that the sun only shines on "specific geographic locations"? Or do you subscribe to the belief that only places like the American Southwest can generate useful amounts of solar power? If so, you're mistaken:
Germany gets 50 percent of its electricity from solar for the first time
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:56 PM on August 24 [8 favorites]


Japan is replacing nuclear with natural gas, either by restarting moth-balled plants or by building new ones. There is tremendous opposition to restarting the 50 or so reactors in Japan, since it seems most of them are built over a fault of some kind.

It's fucking mess, to excuse my French. While Fukushima is not the doomsday scenario that has been reported (in contrast, the tsunami obliterated countless towns and killed 20,000 people), it is costing a ton of money to deal with the problem.

Indeed, most of the money earmarked for rebuilding efforts never reached the affected communities, and some of the money is even being used for the Tokyo Olympics!

The sheer cost of switching to gas, restarting mothballed natural gas plants and building new ones, is crippling the Japanese economy, which has relied on cheap(er) nuclear power. Switching off the nuclear power plants has created a secondary economic calamity.

It's not just about "big business", since many rural economies have used nuclear power as an economic development tool. That's all been washed away, so to speak, and I know mechanical contractors and fabricators who have gone out of business.

While I'm glad Fukushima is able to export rice (fields with high cesium contamination have been very effectively identified), I'm not sure if I would ever feel comfortable eating rice, drinking milk, or eating fish from the region. Luckily, Fukui Prefecture produces all that stuff.

The problem of cesium contamination is not limited to Fukushima or Tochigi or Ibaraki. The contamination reached the southeast corner of Nagano, a major milk-producing region.

But people are forgetting about the accident. I don't necessarily distrust the government, but with food safety government is using a risk-management approach. It's a different way of thinking.
posted by Nevin at 10:56 PM on August 24 [6 favorites]


This is an opportune time to ask for info about the US Navy MeFi user who gave us a lot of info in the days immediately following the disaster. I've read that there's a lawsuit comprised of navy personnel vs Tepco, regarding radiation expisure, and worry a little that there's a crew of cancer victims.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:00 PM on August 24


Vice: NO ONE WANTS YOU TO KNOW HOW BAD FUKUSHIMA MIGHT STILL BE
posted by item at 11:04 PM on August 24 [4 favorites]


One of the biggest problems with this whole situation is that every time there's any sort of problem with nuclear power (which is, by all accounts, much safer in aggregate than any other burning-things-based power source — in fact, coal power plant employees experience more radiation exposure than nuclear power plant employees), there's simply no hope for nuance.

It's as though after the Concorde crashed in 2000, you got this huge contingent of people saying "SEE, AIR TRAVEL ISN'T SO SAFE AFTER ALL, SO LET'S ALL DRIVE OUR CARS WITH LEADED DIESEL EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME" and every time you try to note aggregate safety numbers and the like, they just point at the Big Rare Emotionally Gripping Thing on TV and go NUH-UH SEE SEE
posted by DoctorFedora at 11:47 PM on August 24 [15 favorites]


LEADED DIESEL

Is this even a thing?
posted by hippybear at 11:54 PM on August 24


…that's actually a good question.
posted by DoctorFedora at 11:57 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure exactly what you mean. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone covers over 1000 square miles and has a current full-time population of under 200 people. If by "shadow" you mean a large swath of Europe, which fell under the cloud of released radiation released during the incident, then yes. But as far as people actually living within the area close around the power plant itself, that population is aging and dying, and has a rather low life expectancy.


I'm saying that in the absolute worst area of nuclear power generation, there are protocols and methods that can be used to mitigate the rampant effects of radiation. Chernobyl was a fucking catastrophe on so many levels, but I'm saying that only 30 odd years later, people can safely work in and around ground zero, and will soon complete a new containment shelter that will hopefully last for decades. When the worst happens, it can be mitigated. The worst that happens with coal is an irreconcilable part of production. It is always a catastrophe.
Also, the old and dying people were old in the 80's and simply didn't want to have to uproot to whatever city the Soviets stuck them in. They'd be old and dying now anyway. I'm talking about the fact that the zone can be safely transversed now. It's not anything like "UNINHABITABLE FOREVER". I'm Ukrainian. A big chunk of 'old country' is now a pit. Some trees can kill you there. I understand what that event means. I've also been to coal country. I'd rather go to Pripyat. At least the radiation can be detected. At least we can work harder than the soviets on safety. All I'm saying there.

What? Are you under the impression that the sun only shines on "specific geographic locations"? Or do you subscribe to the belief that only places like the American Southwest can generate useful amounts of solar power? If so, you're mistaken:

No, but I am under the impression that both wind power and solar power have, at the moment, quite specific requirements for where they can be cost-effectively installed. I know this from personal experience with negotiations for situating a number of turbines on our land. The people who actually spend tens of thousands of dollars putting those up aren't philanthropists, and never will be. The real world is expensive, and idealism is cheap.
Also, Germany is roughly the size of a couple of moderately sized US states. That statistic means means literally nothing in the context of a country the size of the US. Try and power even a single major city using only wind power and see how much urban centers enjoy the constant thump of a turbine overhead.

I am totally behind both wind and solar power, but I'm completely unwilling to turn my back on a viable alternative because of Fukushima. It can be done better and it must be done better, because oil, natural gas and coal are not going to make it until other alternatives can be made viable.


On leaded gas, I'm guessing it's a slightly anachronistic hyperbole. Lead used to be a common additive in gas, but was banned in the US in the late 90's for its tremendous negative health effects. It's still used in a couple of oil producing countries that lack strong health regulations. Iraq is all I'm sure of.
posted by neonrev at 12:05 AM on August 25 [16 favorites]


On leaded gas, I'm guessing it's a slightly anachronistic hyperbole.

Gasoline != diesel
posted by hippybear at 12:08 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Vice: NO ONE WANTS YOU TO KNOW HOW BAD FUKUSHIMA MIGHT STILL BE

Not much nuance, there.
posted by Mr. Six at 12:08 AM on August 25


Yeah, it would be great if it was all wind and solar but here in the real world we haven't overcome a lot of the technical hurdles that make those viable all the time, everywhere. So we should still be investigating the far-off dream of fusion power and the much closer and comparatively safer option of thorium fission reactors.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:27 AM on August 25


[Okay, derail deleted. Let it be known that "'leaded diesel' is entirely not a thing" and we all agree. And we all drop it now, thanks. ]
posted by taz at 1:47 AM on August 25 [5 favorites]


Yeah, it would be great if it was all wind and solar but here in the real world we haven't overcome a lot of the technical hurdles that make those viable all the time, everywhere.

Everyone always rails on the storage problem, but that isn't an issue until we max out production at viable times.

Renewable power is such a small slice of the pie compared to other systems; just using it for what it is good at and using other sources when it isn't viable is far better situation than what we have now.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 1:54 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


For those of you who were wondering how they use solar power at night, apparently Germany is investing in pumped-storage hydroelectricity, which can recover "70% to 85%" of the energy used for the pumps. That's pretty impressive.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:04 AM on August 25 [7 favorites]


The people I know in the nuclear industry are absolutely terrified of the situation at Fukushima. It's absolutely not under control, and could get substantially worse incredibly quickly.

It's really bad. Like the sort of people, who don't panic about anything, are genuinely terrified.
posted by effugas at 2:10 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Well, I guess that's nothing compared to the Fukushima deaths. What it is up to, like 2 billion now?

The problem with this fatalistic math is that it's really difficult to accurately calculate how many people are actually effected by radiation from power generation, short term or long term, and whether the results are death, mutation or long term illness.

You can extrapolate and guess with statistical analysis, but this still doesn't account for long term storage or disposal of high grade waste or what may happen to it in the future, near term or long term, or what future power plant accidents may occur.


Chernobyl effected hundreds of millions of people in the first week after the accident, and still is effecting them today with the specter or actuality of increased cancer rates over much of Europe.


Pay particular close attention to the sections on "Science and politics: the problem of epidemiological studies" and "Controversy over human health effects" for better capsule version of what I'm harping on about.

This "problem of epidemiological studies" is the huge, lurching elephant in the room that people don't seem to want to talk about. The actual size and number of this elephant or elephants is not actually known. The state of mind, sanity or sobriety of this metaphorical elephant is also not known. Hell, we don't even know if it's actually an elephant or a giant carnivorous dinosaur or mega-crocodile.

I'm not talking about this out of a knee-jerk, emotionally fearful place. The science of assessing these dangers or even enumerating or understanding the dangers is simply not well understood, and the numbers that are easy to quote about actual deaths are statistical analysis based on incomplete information. By trusting these incomplete, inherently inconclusive studies you're agreeing to let for-profit power companies like TEPCO roll the dice with your health and the collective health of much if not most of the population on the planet.

And no where in any of these studies have I ever seen them try to model the actual or potential worst case scenarios of dealing with long term high level waste. This part keeps getting glossed over by proponents of nuclear fission.

And I have yet to see or even hear of a detailed long term study talking about a disaster that disrupts a major food producing area and the economic or mortality consequences due to a disrupted food chain or economic hardship, because it's almost impossible to track and study in vivo.

Another emergent scenario that will likely never be discussed or calculated is the increased chances of mutation in bacterial or viral communicable disease that we might not even think of attributing to increases in man made radiation or other emergent phenomenon that would be almost impossible to track to the source because the full interrelation of the ecological systems on this planet is not fully understood, and it's not likely to be even fractionally understood in the lifetimes of anyone present.

And no where do I see any serious analysis of the true, full energy costs of fission based nuclear power. It looks "too cheap to meter" at face value, but this assumes a number of things, like never having to decontaminate huge swaths of a watershed the size of the Colorado River, nor the economic costs of lost arable land in a nightmare scenario that might exceed either Fukushima or Chernobyl.

Hell, we still don't actually know the full effects of all the much less "dirty" atmospheric nuclear weapons testing we did, or the long term effects of Hanford, Rocky Flats or Oak Ridge. The closest thing I can find about the effects of the nuclear arms race is "Well, here's a minimally worst case scenario." that suffers from the same "problem" of epidemiological studies that the rest of them do, along with the less re-assuring anecdotal "Gee, modern life seems to involve a lot of cancer."

What discussion would we be having today if the MOX fuel meltdown burnt through the containment to groundwater and exploded, or spent fuel storage pools caught fire and sent up a plume of cesium that blanketed most of the western US?

And ti re-iterate, this does not excuse coal or natural gas, either.. I'm not endorsing coal. These are an awful solution as well, with it's own very real pollution hazards that include increased radiation exposure, and global warming is also causing critical problems.

These problems with fossil fuels do not mean that choosing nuclear fission is the sane solution especially when options like "drastic reductions in personal and industrial energy use" and "vastly increased use of wind and solar" are immediately available and within easier reach in cost and engineering feasibility than cleaning up large scale nuclear contamination.

Fukushima is not going to be the last fission power plant disaster. There will be more. Call it Murphy's law or the inexorable inevitability of human hubris in the face of chaos and entropy, but to expect that it won't happen again and again is fatally myopic.

And if I my refer to my own history of being pro-futurist, pro-technology and relatively pro-industry, I hope it's apparent that I'm not someone who shirks from nor misunderstands science. I have a gift for extrapolation and critical thinking. I do actually understand a fair amount of nuclear physics. I like electricity, I like technology and I like progress. I'm not someone spending my life in a shack on a homestead to avoid radio frequency radiation or petrochemicals found in modern life. I'm anti-homeopathy and woo and etc, ad nauseum, the very model of a technology using modern homo sapiens.

It is really relatively rare that I speak up so loudly and say "Uh, guys? Guys? I think the sky might actually be in danger of falling. We really might want to rethink this one."

So, for the record? I am vehemently unwilling to accept this gamble, or accept the given analysis at face value, because the best analysis itself says we don't actually know.

Humanity rolls 1D20 for critical save, rolls a 1 yet again.
posted by loquacious at 2:11 AM on August 25 [9 favorites]


Also, Germany is roughly the size of a couple of moderately sized US states

I don't quite get what you're saying with this. Germany is 3.6% the size of the USA by area, but 26% by population. If it can generate up to 50% of the power needs of 81.89 million Westerners using 3.6% of America's landmass, then the US proportionately could generate around 700% of its population's needs if it used its own land as intensively. Even if you put 80% of the US off-limits, the German experience suggests that you could find sites for solar and wind to meet most of America's electricity needs without "the constant thump of a turbine overhead" in urban centres.
posted by rory at 2:44 AM on August 25 [23 favorites]


I'm continuously puzzled by the people who worry about the radioactive water leaking into the Pacific. That might indeed be bad for local fisheries, I guess, but if you have any conception of how huge the Pacific Ocean is, you could even make a case for just dumping radioactive waste into it, it's about the least damaging place it could be, if you can't actually concentrate and isolate it efficiently. Especially when it's leaking out fairly gradually, like it seems to be, the peak contamination levels even in the sea just off shore should not be all that high, and would drop off exponentially with the distance from the site.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:52 AM on August 25


If it can generate up to 50% of the power needs of 81.89 million Westerners

To be fair,the average German uses less than half the electricity of the average American, though that highlights laggard efficiency standards moreso than transmission losses, I believe.
posted by smoke at 3:14 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Even if the effects of a few reactors leaking into the ocean wouldn't noticeably increase the overall radioactivity of the water, it's not automatic that the radioactive material would diffuse evenly throughout the ocean. For one, caesium and strontium bioaccumulate, so concentrations in, e.g., tuna would be higher than the surrounding water. A second way radioactive material could concentrate is through the same system of currents that gave us the great Pacific garbage patch.

And now I'm thinking about a school of radioactive tuna terrorizing a quiet California town, and I think SyFy would like to hear about it.
posted by logicpunk at 3:31 AM on August 25 [3 favorites]


It's interesting to read in that Vice article that they're still working on the ground-freezing project. In both Fukushima and Chernobyl things could have been way, way worse (not to minimize the fact that they were both catastrophes and already at the top of the INES scale, which is logarithmic) because most of the nuclear fuel remained contained, but with Fukushima IIRC it was confirmed that what was leaking out into the ocean was nuclear fuel and not just activated radioactive products. So I wonder if it's the case that most of the nuclear fuel in the breached reactors at Fukushima is still within the reactor vessels or has escaped elsewhere underground.

This Wikipedia comparison chart shows that Fukushima has ten times as much fuel mass as Chernobyl, 1600 tons versus 180 tons, though I don't know whether the fuel in one of them would be refined to a higher degree or more dangerous or whatever.
posted by XMLicious at 4:03 AM on August 25


The freezing is not going well, and Tepco is getting bashed here in the Japanese media for sticking to the freezing plan despite it not being successful so far.
posted by Bugbread at 4:18 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


There seems to be a common failure mode in humans that goes like this:

"This is a system which has mindblowingly devastating failure modes."

"We must keep this system secure."

"We must keep information about this system secure." WARNING LOGIC FAILURE

"This is information about the system. We must keep it secret"

"This person shared information about the system. They must be disciplined."

"This person seems similar to those people we had to discipline. This other person seems to be a chap* like us. Who shall we employ?"

Over time you end up with a deep stack of liars. One logic failure, thousands of deceitful weasels.

This is why the people running power stations and water companies and mining companies and governments lie. They lie and deceive and misdirect and deflect and they lie. Not because they need to, or want to. They lie because they have purged anyone who doesn't and lying is all they can do.

For the good of the public. We must keep the system secure.

(*By this point, it's a chap. A jolly good chap. One of us, don't you know.)
posted by Combat Wombat at 4:24 AM on August 25 [9 favorites]


The elephant in the room in this discussion is population. More people need more energy. If we can't muster the political will to curb population and resist the tendency of certain religious organizations to promote reproduction, we're all fucked eventually. Or our children and grandchildren will be.
posted by Agave at 4:38 AM on August 25


The elephant in the room in this discussion is population.

The 70's called, they want their fears back. WTF are you talking about? Especially in the context of Japan, that country is simply dying off for lack of children. This might well be the wrongest, opposite-of-true, plain bizzarely inaccurate comment ever made on this site.
posted by amorphatist at 4:55 AM on August 25 [10 favorites]


Population is not the problem. The problem is overconsumption in the developed world. Claiming that the problem is overpopulation is simply a way of blaming the poor for problems that are the fault and responsibility of the rich.
posted by howfar at 4:56 AM on August 25 [20 favorites]


Global population is expected to peak and start going down (logarithmic graph) during this century without anyone taking active measures, which in the past have manifested in distinctly unsavory forms.
posted by XMLicious at 5:10 AM on August 25 [4 favorites]


logicpunk: "For one, caesium and strontium bioaccumulate, so concentrations in, e.g., tuna would be higher than the surrounding water"
Isn't that unlikely to be a problem given that we've already more or less emptied the oceans of fish?
posted by brokkr at 5:18 AM on August 25 [3 favorites]


Isn't that unlikely to be a problem given that we've already more or less emptied the oceans of fish?

And this, friends, is the kind of grim pronouncement that will be increasingly referred to as a "silver lining" as the years roll on and this beleaguered planet falls deeper and deeper into a ravaged, diseased and broken state.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:27 AM on August 25 [5 favorites]


This might well be the wrongest, opposite-of-true, plain bizzarely inaccurate comment ever made on this site.

If all you have is a hammer, anything will look like a nail.

growing up in the 1970s this is EXACTLY the kind of thing that the anti-nuke people were ranting about "going to happen" if nuclear energy was adopted.

I had a slightly prominent antinuclear activist in my family, so I grew up surrounded by this kind of basic risk analysis and as a kid just thought it was normal common sense. Now of course I'd also acknowledge the distributed damage from coal (as well as the environmental and social disasters that big dams can provide); the only viable long term answer is in efficiency and reducing use, but of course that's not really on the table as a serious option.

And I guess that's what I resent about the "nuclear: good or bad?" question, that we are making these choices without having all the options treated seriously, and in the context of near-total regulatory capture by the various industries. At that point it's just a shitty choice no matter what option you select and with guaranteed human and ecological damages.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:41 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:04 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Agave: "The elephant in the room in this discussion is population."

Seriously. When will the Japanese government get around to doing something about the explosive population growth in this country?
posted by Bugbread at 6:23 AM on August 25 [9 favorites]


>but here in the real world we haven't overcome a lot of the technical hurdles that make those viable all the time, everywhere

The very keys to renewable energy are that it is variable, and that it depends on location. It's not a technical hurdle; it's physical reality. No technical solution will make a hydro dam viable in the Sahara, or solar under the rainforest canopy. The energy source is intrinsic to the location, unlike piped-in gas or coal by rail — though both of those thermal sources require an external heat sink nearby that's often conveniently ignored by the public.

I've designed and built wind power in many places, but I don't know anyone in the industry who says it can be built any place. That language is the preserve of charlatans who are hawking their latest (rooftop|silent|bird-safe|wind-accelerating|…) device.

> I am totally behind both wind and solar power, but

neonrev, in 20-odd years of doing this, everyone I've met who says “I support wind power, but …” actually don't support it at all, and are often quite antagonistic.
posted by scruss at 6:27 AM on August 25 [3 favorites]


Try and power even a single major city using only wind power and see how much urban centers enjoy the constant thump of a turbine overhead.

Existing power plants tend to be on the outskirts of major cities rather than literally inside them. We have plenty of land near our cities to cover in solar panels and wind turbines before we start having turbines thumping "overhead" in Manhattan.

Also, personally, having been around both, I think I'd prefer a background thump of wind turbines to the roar of internal-combustion engines.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:29 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


These problems with fossil fuels do not mean that choosing nuclear fission is the sane solution especially when options like "drastic reductions in personal and industrial energy use" and "vastly increased use of wind and solar" are immediately available and within easier reach in cost and engineering feasibility than cleaning up large scale nuclear contamination.


While higher efficiency requirements are good, I don't think taking it to the level required for "drastic" reductions (AKA "Have you tried just being really poor?") will be a very successful program.

The way I've come around is that using solar/wind/tidal/hydro* to replace coal or gas electricity is great. Using them to replace an equivalent MW of nuke capacity is great. But replacing coal with nuclear, for the time being, is also pretty good given how astoundingly awful coal is, and replacing gas with nuclear might be too.

To be fair,the average German uses less than half the electricity of the average American, though that highlights laggard efficiency standards moreso than transmission losses, I believe.

You'd expect German electricity use to be substantially lower than US even if efficiency requirements were the same. Germans are more likely to live in smaller apartments, which are inherently more efficient, and the climate in North America is substantially harsher than that in Germany (or elsewhere in Europe). Electricity use is also going to be skewed substantially by its use (or nonuse) in domestic heating; this is why Iceland has stratospheric electricity consumption.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:50 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Electricity use is also going to be skewed substantially by its use (or nonuse) in domestic heating; this is why Iceland has stratospheric electricity consumption.

I'm pretty certain this is flat wrong. Geothermal heating is the major source of domestic heating in Iceland. The main reason that Iceland has such high per capita use is the aluminium industry, which is enormous in comparison to the tiny population.
posted by howfar at 7:02 AM on August 25 [7 favorites]


Happy to be corrected; I should have remembered that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:06 AM on August 25


I'm continuously puzzled by the people who worry about the radioactive water leaking into the Pacific.

Bio-accumulation. Think mercury. Then add cesium to your sushi dish.

Population

This is absolutely correct. We are currently at 7 billion which most environmental experts say is beyond carrying capacity (1.5 billion is seen as a global sustainable population number, at European-level affluence). Japan like most countries is over-populated. It's on the right track to reduce population, but will it be enough, fast enough? Not if it needs a dozen sketchy nuclear plants. The idea that things will level out at 10 billion should be frightening as hell to any right thinking person. And that's not even guaranteed, a very slight increase in reproduction rates could make it 15 billion, which is "game over" because the energy required to sustain 10 or 15 billion may so overly pollute and degrade the environment some key natural system(s) will fail, already failing.

Consumption is the problem

There is no solution for consumption. Do you have one? I don't. But I do have a solution to reduce the number of consumers. Voluntary family planning: condoms. Legal Abortion. Low tech, cheap, easy to implement solutions that work.

The point of population, it is the driver of nearly every major existential problem in earth. Without massively reducing population, no other fix is going to work, it just kicks the can down the road until some new limit to growth appears. The Nobel Prize winner for the Green Revolution Norman Borlaug told people in his 1970 acceptance speech that without population control the Green Revolution was just a stay of execution (not the exact words, speech here - read it).
posted by stbalbach at 7:14 AM on August 25 [5 favorites]


The elephant in the room in this discussion is population.

This isn't true obviously, but the actual long-term issue is sort of similiar: Africa and Asia joining the middle class. Absolute population isn't going to be rising much longer, but the intensive energy using population will be.

That's why "let's all be as efficient as the Germans" is a good idea, but insufficient as a long term answer. We're not going to conserve our way out of 3 billion people, and "drastic reductions in personal and industrial energy use" is simply impossible. Even if every factory and power plant in the West became state-of-the-art facilities, it's not going to offset
posted by spaltavian at 7:14 AM on August 25


high per capita use is the aluminium industry

This is entirely fair to count: aluminum production goes wherever power is plentiful and cheap. Metallic aluminum is the closest thing we have to frozen electricity. It's in Iceland, as it is in northern BC and Quebec, because of cheap, constant hydroelectric generation.

Residential use is very cyclical. Hydro generation is constant. Aluminum production allows the continuous water flow to be used without large amounts of power vanishing through a spillway. It's next to impossible to "bank" waterpower in a significant way, so it makes sense to have an industrial use which can operate to counter the residential cycle.

Aluminum production pushes gross consumption numbers up, but in situations like a hydroelectric plant with a continuous energy source, it's actually the least wasteful way to operate. Interestingly, with slow start-up and shutdowns, similar arguments can be used for nuclear.
posted by bonehead at 7:21 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Absolute population isn't going to be rising much longer

Umm... you know the UN has made a dramatic shift in its projections? It used to say it would level off at 9.2 billion by 2050, but it's now saying it will keep rising to 10 billion at 2100 with no level off (sustained plateau). But that 10 billion is the middle-road estimate. The high is 15 billion, low 6 billion. (pg. 17) The difference is half a child per woman. So if over the next 90 years women have, on average, half a child more, we get 15 billion (game over). If they have half a child less, we reduce to 6 billion. Half a child.

Iran recently backed away from population control and wants to increase again. China's 1-child policy is eroding. It doesn't take much.
posted by stbalbach at 7:53 AM on August 25


"In 2008 the World Health Organization (WHO) and other organizations calculated that coal particulates pollution cause approximately one million deaths annually across the world,[5]"

Well, I guess that's nothing compared to the Fukushima deaths. What it is up to, like 2 billion now?


OTOH, global energy production:
nuclear: 2,518 TWh
coal: 41,354 TWh

So let's say we had 16x as many nuclear plants operatings for decades now to offset coal production, and that means instead of Chernobyl & Fukushima we've had 32 separate nuclear meltdowns. You wanna bet on what the planet looks like after that? Maybe each and every meltdown was contained through heroic, suicidal efforts by workers. But maybe one or two weren't, and then how much of the planet is uninhabitable?
posted by crayz at 8:03 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


A fable:

Jenell, a twenty-two-year-old woman, lives in a village on a small hill surrounded by farmland and forest. Her people consider themselves civilized, unlike the stories of savages in distant lands.

They grow vegetables, fruits, and grains, have domesticated animals for food and transport, and the woods are productive foraging and hunting grounds. Firewood is their fuel source for heating and cooking, but the forest is vast and the number of people small. Jenell has rarely gone hungry. Life is good.

There are neighboring villages within a day’s ride and more beyond. The people of this forest between mountains and sea are united by language and culture. In a land of plenty, villages rarely squabble. Jenell knows the concept of war but has never seen it. Life is good.

Jenell is pregnant for the tenth time since she married Nik. They have no children. Babies one, two, four, five, and seven came out early, dead. Three was a beautiful baby girl, but died after her second birthday due to illness. Six, eight, and nine were deformities born alive who didn’t survive long. This is normal for the women of her village. It is rare for any family to have more than two children that survive to adulthood. It’s just the way things are and always have been. Jenell once met some traders from far away who had five (!) healthy children. (Well, two had a slight deformities, but were good children nonetheless.)

Most people don’t live past forty. While some, like her daughter, die quickly of communicable diseases, others die slowly of “The Growth” and other ailments that take months or years. Nik’s father was twenty-seven when he died of The Growth, diagnosed after death by the village doctor as being a Growth on the kidney. It’s just the way things are and always have been.

Jenell and Nik’s people are not ignorant. They know that in ancient times their village site was between two great cities, each housing more people than all of the villages in all of the known lands put together. The oldest stories are from these times. Many are of incredible acts: “The Men on the Moon” is a favorite but no adult believes such silliness.

Still, there is no denying that the world once was very different. Even in the area around the village people often find ancient man-made things when they dig a new well. There must have been so many people that the cities could not hold them, so they lived everywhere. Some villages make their living by mining for metal and other useful objects from old times. Miners can get rich but tend to die young of wasting sicknesses if not accidents. It’s better to live in a farming village, Jenell thinks.

• • • • •

What the people don’t know is that in that distant past there was a lake near their villages. By that lake there was a nuclear power plant providing electricity to the far-away cities. There was an accident. Luckily, it was “contained” and the cities themselves did not have to be evacuated. Most of the radioactive material could not be safely removed so was entombed on site. Thousands of years passed. Knowledge of the site and its danger were lost. Jenell’s ancestors were not even the inhabitants of those cities.

Short-lived isotopes decayed, others are very much still dangerous. Concrete crumbles, water distributes. Much stayed in the soil, but made it to groundwater. Plants and animals also contributed to moving atoms around. There was a lot of highly-radioactive material to begin with, slowly diffused and diluted over time — enough to cause health problems for people living in the area. Additionally, hundreds of years of industrial civilization left a gift of persistent organic pollutants.

• • • • •

During fall harvest Jenell gave birth to a healthy baby — another girl. Life is good.
posted by D.C. at 8:20 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


So let's say we had 16x as many nuclear plants operatings for decades now to offset coal production, and that means instead of Chernobyl & Fukushima we've had 32 separate nuclear meltdowns.

Yes because we would automatically get just as many extra catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis and every plant would be put in areas vulnerable to that like Fukushima.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:48 AM on August 25


A fable:

That's a fine story, but not useful for thinking about the actual future. Not sure why you're assuming complete global collapse of society and technology. Yes, occasionally societies do collapse and knowledge is lost, but it's always been temporary. The Roman empire collapsed and Europe forgot how to make the best metal tools, but then they figured it out again. Future generations will absolutely be aware of radioactivity.
posted by echo target at 9:00 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Keep in mind that coal is just the next suckiest thing to nuclear following a meltdown. Coal ash and slag is responsible for the majority of radioactives emitted in the US (and China) every year.

If the decision is to move away from nuclear, coal should be at the absolute bottom of the list of options behind everything else, including putting people on hamster wheels. Coal already kills thousands of of people in NA (US 13,000 est, Alberta, 3000 est) each year, and an estimated quarter million a year in China.
posted by bonehead at 9:07 AM on August 25


I've read that there's a lawsuit comprised of navy personnel vs Tepco, regarding radiation expisure, and worry a little that there's a crew of cancer victims.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:00 PM on August 24 [+] [!]


It's highly doubtful they were dosed.

The lawsuit is on behalf of a number of servicemen and women charged with scrubbing down the flight deck of an aircraft carrier that had been dispatched to provide assistance during the nuclear crisis. Following the hydrogen explosions, the carrier was indeed exposed to some of the plume.

However, the immediate problem for the Seventh Fleet was that even low amounts of radioactive fallout would wreak havoc with the delicate sensors the carrier used to monitor its own onboard reactor.

The carrier moved out of the area in order to avoid damaging its own sensors; this would have taken an entire carrier out of action when there was no reason to be out of action (eg, a state of war).

I would like to say that the Seventh Fleet did one hell of a job following the earthquake and tsunami, as did the American ambassador John Roos. Roos is one of the great post-war American ambassadors to Japan.
posted by Nevin at 9:32 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


A fable

Oh for fucks sake, that's ridiculous.

My academic background is in radiation health risk assessment, specifically biosphere modeling of risks associated with waste repositories, though that's not what I do these days.

Disclosure: I have feelings about nuclear power, but would generally favor ramping up production in the US and abroad. My current line of work is unconnected with nuclear power.

There are basically three regimes of radiation dose we can talk about.

Very high doses: Immediate health risks, capable of causing miscarriage, death, etc. The doses encountered by first responders to reactor accidents and in very limited areas around accidents for relatively short periods of time. These kinds of dose rates decline quickly due to decay and dispersal. I don't think anyone received doses in this range as a result of Fukushima.

High dose rates: Dose rates too low to cause deterministic effects like above, but where there is a known link between radiation exposure and chance of dieing of cancer. The number of people who got doses in this range as a result of Fukushima is perhaps a hundred people.

Low-medium dose rates: At these dose rates we don't really know scientifically whether there is a link between cancer and radiation. The international concensus is to assume there is and that it is proportionately as risky as higher levels of radiation. At worst, these dose rates contribute incrementally to the odds of getting cancer. These dose rates are often smaller than the change in annual radiation dose you'd experience moving from Florida to Colorado. Dose rates at this level are the worst risks the people in the fable above, residents of Japan, and future human communities living near old leaky waste repositories can expect, small increases in the baseline cancer risk. Not hordes of deformed children.

So let's say we had 16x as many nuclear plants operatings for decades now to offset coal production, and that means instead of Chernobyl & Fukushima we've had 32 separate nuclear meltdowns. You wanna bet on what the planet looks like after that? Maybe each and every meltdown was contained through heroic, suicidal efforts by workers. But maybe one or two weren't, and then how much of the planet is uninhabitable?

A miniscule portion by almost any metric, especially compared to the impacts of e.g. coal mining. For decades we detonated nuclear weapons all over the place during weapons testing. Nuclear waste got dumped into the oceans, and all over. It does not get less contained than that. Which is far from saying it's okay or acceptable, it is not. Or that it is a likely scenario to have occured, which I don't think it is.

It's highly doubtful they were dosed.

You can see the best estimates for doses to DOD personnel in Japan during the Fukushima accident here They were dosed, but not very significantly. I encourage you to check out this link as it is a good presentation of the data and risks.

Okay, I don't know where I was going with this, and now my sandwich is getting cold.
posted by pseudonick at 9:49 AM on August 25 [19 favorites]


neonrev, in 20-odd years of doing this, everyone I've met who says “I support wind power, but …” actually don't support it at all, and are often quite antagonistic.
posted by scruss


I vehemently do support wind power, especially over solar at the moment. We even have 2 turbines on rented farm land that belongs to the family. I'm not at all antagonistic towards it, just aware of how it actually works right now. Which isn't very well.
posted by neonrev at 11:50 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Germany ... can generate up to 50% of the power needs of 81.89 million Westerners

Yes, "up to" that. For about one hour on an unusually sunny summer day. They have a lot of solar when you measure by generation "capacity", but it rarely generates anywhere near its rated capacity. Last year it seems they generated more like 6% of their electricity that way. Maybe this year it'll be up to 7%? It is quite an impressive feat for what is not the most insolated country around, for sure.

While looking this up I saw several reports saying that at present they're installing more coal than solar in Germany, since deciding to quit the nuclear habit.
posted by sfenders at 12:15 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


But wait - there's more:
Germany Sets New Record, Generating 74 Percent Of Power Needs From Renewable Energy
On Sunday, Germany’s impressive streak of renewable energy milestones continued, with renewable energy generation surging to a record portion — nearly 75 percent — of the country’s overall electricity demand by midday. With wind and solar in particular filling such a huge portion of the country’s power demand, electricity prices actually dipped into the negative for much of the afternoon, according to Renewables International.

In the first quarter of 2014, renewable energy sources met a record 27 percent of the country’s electricity demand, thanks to additional installations and favorable weather.
Yes, that 74% was on one day, but not the same day as the as the previously-cited 50%-from-solar day.

Also:
Solar energy now same price as conventional power in Germany, Italy, Spain

This is not pie in the sky. Renewables are actually viable.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:02 PM on August 25


Solar energy now same price as conventional power in Germany, Italy, Spain

Beware of solar power advocates bearing numbers.

If you look at the actual study it doesn't say anything so crazy as what an incautious reader might take that statement to mean. It uses what is perhaps a too-low discount rate (as low as 3.6%), but otherwise I don't see anything obviously wrong with what it does say, which is that government policy in these countries has raised the price of electricity from the grid, and provided subsidies for PV installations, by so much that it it may be more or less financially sensible, if you're a commercial user of power there, to buy your own solar panels instead. Or, you know, move your facilities to some other country if electricity is a big part of your operating cost and you have that option. It shouldn't be surprising that they have this kind of "grid parity" in Germany, it's basically the whole reason they have so much solar power in the first place.

It's not as if they've invented some magic that makes photovoltaics actually cost less than coal, they've simply given users of solar the opportunity to move the cost to other people. In Germany it's on the scale of a significant fraction of national GDP. There are the obvious justifications for doing this, of course, I'm not saying it's a bad idea. Even with this level of commitment to renewable energy that is unparalleled in all the world, they're still burning more coal each year since they started shutting down nuclear power stations in response to Fukushima. Along with all the other hazards of coal, their carbon dioxide emissions are increasing. Whether their long-term plan to reverse this is credible, I have no idea. It shouldn't be impossible, but it's not without problems: Can Germany survive the Energiewende?

Of course renewable generation is viable, my computer is 100% powered by it right now thanks to Hydro Quebec. It's just not quite as miraculous as it's sometimes made out to be.
posted by sfenders at 5:51 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


echo target wrote: That's a fine story, but not useful for thinking about the actual future. Not sure why you're assuming complete global collapse of society and technology. Yes, occasionally societies do collapse and knowledge is lost, but it's always been temporary. The Roman empire collapsed and Europe forgot how to make the best metal tools, but then they figured it out again. Future generations will absolutely be aware of radioactivity.

Yes, I am assuming a longer amount of time and a turbulent future. The situation we find ourselves in today is unprecedented in terms of modern technology and related man-made problems. The peak of the Roman Empire was less than two thousand years ago, which is nothing, and I’d hardly call it a collapse compared to other “lost” civilizations (e.g., the Mayans). The Roman Empire crumbled, but despite major setbacks continuous cultural transmission did not.

In the long view, recorded human history is short compared to the amount time there have been anatomically modern humans. There were great migrations of people and many linguistic changes that we can only hear the faint echos of. (In the story the people are not the “original” inhabitants of that region.) Even up to the present day there are cultures well adapted to their environments that never developed writing, which I think would be a prerequisite for preserving (or regaining) much technical knowledge from our time. Peasants can be illiterate if there is some class of people in society who preserve literacy and books. If that is lost it could take a long time to be rediscovered, especially with a people who know how to live in their world and think their lifestyle/culture is perfectly fine/normal (which it would be for them).

I don’t think the only possible futures are (a) continuous advanced civilization (with the occasional setback) for all eternity or (b) humans collapse to extinction within the next thousand years (or whatever). Many different futures are possible between those two extremes. Part of the value of speculative fiction is to explore the “what ifs” — to engage in thought experiments about how things could possibly (but not necessarily) play out and affect real people in the future. I labeled this a “fable” not “OMG this is totally going to happen” for that reason.


pseudonick wrote: Oh for fucks sake, that's ridiculous.

My academic background is in radiation health risk assessment, specifically biosphere modeling of risks associated with waste repositories, though that's not what I do these days.

Disclosure: I have feelings about nuclear power, but would generally favor ramping up production in the US and abroad. My current line of work is unconnected with nuclear power.


In the story above I wasn’t blaming radiation for all deaths. I was assuming a combination of (a) a large amount of contamination within their area (not from hundreds of miles away), (b) our civilization continuing to manufacture a huge number of other pollutants that don’t break down quickly/easily but will continue to persist and spread in the environment long after we stop making them, and (c) the higher incidence of infant/childhood mortality in societies without modern medicine.

In a Chernobyl-type situation (not a planned repository) where containment is only a temporary fix, is there really not a scenario where gradual natural dispersal of radioactive material from breached containment couldn’t cause health problems for people ignorant of its existence?

Is the window (both in geographic distance from the site and number of years) where the radiation levels are between “you have gotten a lethal dose and will die soon” and “not a problem” really so small/short? I would think there could be a zone where very high cancer rates are possible.

To be clear, in the story I’m not talking about residual radiation that was dispersed during an ancient accident (like the fallout in Europe immediately after Chernobyl), but loss of containment of a very bad point source.
posted by D.C. at 10:04 PM on August 25


Without massively reducing population, no other fix is going to work, it just kicks the can down the road until some new limit to growth appears.

Keep using coal for the next fifty years, and it will be a self-correcting problem. By the way, you don't happen to live in a place that's got plenty of water and is over 300' above sea level by any chance? ( here you can check) One that's an easily fortifiable domicile? If so, me and my closest 50 friends would like to visit.

Seriously, it's way too late to talk about population control, just as it is to worry about which power generation scheme to use. Go ahead and fiddle with solar or coal or whatever; It's 30 years too late to save the world.
posted by happyroach at 6:45 AM on August 26


From today's The Age (Melbourne, Australia): Watts happening? Electricity demand falling as prices continue to rise

The headline is dumb (it would be standard high–school economics if true) but the article is interesting: the annual peak demand here in Victoria has been falling for the past three years, when it used to rise by 2.5% annually. This change in electricity consumption over the past decade is equivalent to saving the construction of two or three coal-fired power stations. In fact, as the report says, "All of the decline in consumption has in fact been at the expense of coal-fired generators, with the result that many are now barely profitable."

You can find the underlying report here.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:08 PM on August 27


happyroach: Seriously, it's way too late to talk about population control, just as it is to worry about which power generation scheme to use. Go ahead and fiddle with solar or coal or whatever; It's 30 years too late to save the world.

This is almost as bad as the pollyannas. The worst case scenarios are horribly frightening, but they occur over a century. The really bad stuff is not front loaded. Built-in-effects can't be reversed, with current technology. It's really hard to say what the technology of 2050 or 2080 looks like. "Fiddling" with power generation is a perfectly sensible option to keep the process from speeding up while we use the time available. We're just under the break even point for fusion right now. With that much power at our disposal, we open up a lot of options.

Anyone living in 1900 would have said that a population of 7 billion would be impossible, because everyone would starve, and then technology completely changed the game. The scariest thing about climate change is that we seem to expect as a matter of policy capitalist entities that are myopic by design to solve the problem, rather than the tried and true method of government research and development programs.
posted by spaltavian at 10:40 AM on August 28


spaltavian: "We're just under the break even point for fusion right now."

So, it's only 19 years away?
posted by Chrysostom at 9:18 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


Damn, when I was a kid it was 10 years.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:39 PM on August 28


Chrysostom: "We're just under the break even point for fusion right now."

So, it's only 19 years away?


No, if it happens it would be far later than that. But saying it can't happen is no different than saying heavier-than-air flight can't happen. And not investing in a game-changing energy source that is already understood on the theoretical level is stupid.
posted by spaltavian at 7:06 AM on August 29


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