Three Mile Island accident: 43 years later
March 28, 2022 3:23 PM   Subscribe

"Beginning around 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, a series of technical and human errors led to a partial meltdown inside the Unit 2 reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Four[-plus] decades later, the event remains the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history." ‘Three Mile Island: As It Happened’ — a three-part podcast. posted by MonkeyToes (80 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
I was nine, and remember my mother pulling my sister and me from school to drive out of the northeast to her familial home in Nashville to get further from the plant. So it looms large in my memory, and it certainly confirmed our anti-nuclear-power convictions.

No-one was hurt or killed in the incident, and evidence for higher cancer levels in the area later is tenuous. But out of fear, we preferred coal, oil, and gas to nuclear, and will – literally – reap the whirlwind.
posted by nicwolff at 3:55 PM on March 28 [13 favorites]


Is this going to be the start of a top five nuclear accidents series? One a week gives a great schedule leading up to Chernobyl at the end of April.
posted by biffa at 4:02 PM on March 28 [7 favorites]


I was struck after watching the Chernobyl miniseries about it be key similarity between the two accidents as I read up on them at the time. Specifically in both instances regulators / the reactor designers had kept critical safety information from the operators do that when the reactor got into a failure mode the operators ended up doing the wrong thing. At 3MI or was a faulty sensor, while at Chernobyl it was the fact that a reactor scram could cause a steam explosion.

There are many differences in how the reactors got into the failure mode; but ultimately there is a cautionary tail here for nuclear power plant operations and even with designs that have a bigger margin of safety.
posted by interogative mood at 4:15 PM on March 28 [8 favorites]


The Wikipedia pages for Civilian Nuclear Accidents and Military Nuclear Accidents are a huge rabbit hole to fall down if anyone has the time. The shear number of incidents. And the occasional nuclear weapon not yet recovered…..

How we haven’t had an accidental nuclear detonation or more INES level 7 events seems like good luck than anything else

Like this one “…a B-47 bomber on a routine training mission crashed into a storage igloo beside the runway containing three Mark-6 nuclear weapons. The igloo was ripped apart and the aircraft exploded, showering the stored bombs with burning aviation fuel. The bombs each had a yield ten times greater than the "Little Boy" atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima during the Second World War…….one official US cable reported that it was a "miracle" that one bomb with "exposed detonators" did not explode, which would have released nuclear material into the environment…..A senior US official was quoted as saying "it is possible that a part of Eastern England would have become a desert". Another USAF officer remarked "near disaster was averted by tremendous heroism, good fortune and the will of God".”
posted by inflatablekiwi at 4:42 PM on March 28 [11 favorites]


There was a movie - The China Syndrome.

A detail I find convincing is that nuclear plants are not insured by insurance companies but by the federal government, because the potential liability is so large.
posted by theora55 at 4:47 PM on March 28 [8 favorites]


I couldn't get the three podcasts to operate on the webpage and checked their podcast feed and that is very out of date. Which is very much unfortunate - I would love an updated look at the incident. Back in 1986 CBC Ideas broadcast a 4 part series called Counting the Costs. It is one of the absolute best pieces of radio work I have ever heard.
posted by zenon at 4:55 PM on March 28 [4 favorites]


Zenon , does this link work for you?
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:00 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


I sometimes read through the NRC Daily Event Reports (here's today's) which are (usually!) oddly reassuring for their quotidian bureaucratic dryness. E.g. today:
At 1338 EDT today (3/18/2022), QSA Global, Inc. contacted the Radiation Control Program to report a potential missing package containing radioactive material. The package is a QSA Global 880 source changer and overpack containing a single Ir-192 source with an activity of 6.6 curies"
and then
Upon Agency (Massachusetts Radiation Control Program) discussion with state of Tennessee, who had contacted the common carrier's Dangerous Goods Administration, the carrier reported on March 22, 2022, the package to be located at the carrier's Custom clearance area at its hub in Memphis, TN and the package is not missing.
Phew!
posted by nicwolff at 6:01 PM on March 28 [9 favorites]


The Podcast direct mp3 links: part 1, part 2, part 3
posted by hippybear at 6:04 PM on March 28 [2 favorites]


I lived in PA during the three mile island disaster, and it had an outsized impact on people's perception of nuclear power. The weird thing is, even if the number of fatalities is immensely downplayed (and with Chernobyl it probably was), nuclear power is safer even than wind and rooftop solar power when you look at fatalities per terawatt-hour produced. There's some evidence that fly ash from coal plants releases more radioactive material alone than nuclear power, not even thinking about the air pollution involved. Everyone knows that we need renewables eventually, but with over 84% of global energy coming from carbon sources and total energy consumption from fossil fuels still increasing we've got a long, long, long way to go before we can abandon nuclear as one of our primary choices. Total increase in renewables is not even meeting increase in demand yet.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:46 PM on March 28 [16 favorites]


I was 15, it was my sister's 13th birthday. We lived almost exactly 10 miles away. As a high school sophomore in the 70's, my lifeline to friends was our landline phone, with one of those 20 ft long spiral cords. I remember stretching the cord to its limit to get privacy on the basement staircase to network with worried friends one-at-a-time as it unfolded. Rumors ran wild, but I was a science geek and understood what the talking heads were saying on the nightly news.
Some of my friends left town, but our family stayed. My dad, a republican at the time, confident that President Carter had it under control.
posted by OHenryPacey at 6:52 PM on March 28 [7 favorites]


I have a fantasy that there is a big secret where most of our nuclear arsenals are non-working. I mean think about it. As long as your enemy thinks you have them; why bother. You can’t actually use them as that would end the world. An accident, theft, or if they fell into the wrong hands it would be a huge catastrophe. If your some scientist working on the project why not just make a couple for testing purposes and then make some convincing looking props for the missile silos and the generals to look at. How would they know? Someone figured it out; the scandal is too big so they can’t say anything — we’d be defenseless without our deterrent. You can also pay them off with the huge stacks of cash you’ve got from not actually spending the money building the nukes.
posted by interogative mood at 8:51 PM on March 28 [5 favorites]


The great thing about living in a bomb shelter during radioactive fallout will be the conversations where someone "well-actually"-s you about how dangerous canned beef is for your health and the planet and how nuclear is still a good choice for power.

If the russians had shelled a wind farm or solar plant no one would bat an eye. If three mile island or cherbobyl were just blackouts from low water levels at the damn or frost on the wind turbine we would still be arguing about the very real south jersey cancer clusters (whose origin could be chemical industry, nuclear industry, manville asbestos etc).

Coal is also very bad. So are fossil fuels. The alternative to ecological suicide is easy: less.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 9:52 PM on March 28 [9 favorites]


Everyone knows that we need renewables eventually

Everybody who thinks it through understands that the best time to start an aggressive ramp-up in construction of the renewable-based plant we're going to need "eventually" is before demand has grown any further than it already has.

nuclear power is safer even than wind and rooftop solar power when you look at fatalities per terawatt-hour produced

Our World In Data disagrees. Their numbers say that nuclear power kills about twice as many people per terawatt hour as wind, and over three times as many as either solar or hydro. So if it's ultimate safety we're after then we want more solar, not more nukes.

with over 84% of global energy coming from carbon sources and total energy consumption from fossil fuels still increasing we've got a long, long, long way to go before we can abandon nuclear as one of our primary choices.

Every existing nuclear power plant has a design life, which makes that particular plant essentially self-abandoning. The question of what to replace it with doesn't even arise until near the end of that design life.

Total increase in renewables is not even meeting increase in demand yet.

All unmet demand ever means is that it's still possible to make a buck on supply. And in much of the world it already costs less to replace non-end-of-life coal-fired plant with new renewables than it does to maintain and fuel the existing coal-fired plant. The extreme expense of decommissioning a nuclear facility means that the same can't be said of those, unfortunately.

New nuclear is already having its lunch totally eaten by renewables on purely economic grounds, and it has nothing to offer that renewables plus battery storage can't match at lower cost. It's obsolete, and we ought to stop wasting everybody's time advocating it.

The appropriate place to site a huge reactor is 150Gm from the nearest major population centre.
posted by flabdablet at 10:31 PM on March 28 [19 favorites]


A detail I find convincing is that nuclear plants are not insured by insurance companies but by the federal government, because the potential liability is so large.

That's not quite accurate. A reactor operator's liability is capped to some hundreds of millions with the feds paying the rest, but they do carry insurance for those hundreds of millions.

Coal plants get a much larger implicit subsidy in that they aren't responsible for the damage caused by the mercury and other heavy metals and the pall of fine particles they spew into the environment in normal operation. Natural gas gets away with gigatons of methane leaks.

Nuclear power may be expensive, but it's also one of the few industries that isn't allowed to significantly externalize its costs.
posted by wierdo at 10:55 PM on March 28 [14 favorites]


I think 3mi and other small nuclear accidents shows that the risk profile of nuclear does not fit our institutions and human pyschology well.

The risk blindness and procedure fatigue that sets in can make a mess of any highstakes human endeavor from space shuttles to central sterile protocols in hospitals. But when a space shuttle explodes it kills under a dozen people and who it kills is obvious.

The reason the chorus of nuke-panglosians love the safety record is because assigning a cause to a birth defect or cancer years later is genuinely hard. Even tobacco is not so 1:1.

So we keep dosing the atmosphere and oceans and some ground water and soil with radionucleides and the proverbial frog boils.

All so that we dont have to live with the indignity of running the clothes dryer on someone else's schedule than our whim.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 10:55 PM on March 28 [7 favorites]


Thanks for the links to the audio - turns out I could have just scrolled down on their podcast feed and found them.
posted by zenon at 10:59 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Nuclear power may be expensive, but it's also one of the few industries that isn't allowed to significantly externalize its costs

Dear reader, do you believe that the research, development, construction and operation and hypothetical future cleanup and decommision of nuclear powerplants was not significantly born by taxpayers?

Do you believe that in the advent of a nuclear accident that contaminates a county, state, or hemisphere that the private company operating the plant and their insurance company could put humpty-dumpty back together again? without government assistance. Nuclear reactors are science, nuclear advocacy is science fiction.

Edited for spelling and to lower my blood pressure.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 11:03 PM on March 28 [7 favorites]


The alternative to ecological suicide is easy: less.

Absolutely this.

But it's almost like political or social Kryptonite to even discuss conservation. Everyone I talk to just wants some technical solution that will allow them to continue living in profligate waste. I know someone whose clothes dryer broke recently. She continued on and on about how she can't do her wash. I was puzzled and asked about just, you know, hanging her clothes up to dry. She thought I was suggesting that she go down to the creek to scrub her clothing on a washboard or something. I guess even a clothesline in the US is just beyond the pale these days, and she's even a self-described liberal.

Michael Bluejay (aka "Mr. Electricity") has had a website for 2 decades explaining how the key is to find ways to use less energy. He cut his own consumption of electricity by 90%. He pointed out that doing so made it far, far easier to switch to renewables. A lot of this was pretty simple stuff--- turn stuff off. Don't use a dryer and hang your clothes. If you absolutely must use an A/C only run it when you're at home. Etc, etc. But no one wants to hear these things. You should have seen the reactions of people recently who were complaining elsewhere on the internet about gas prices. I pointed out that simply slowing down can increase your fuel economy easily by 20% or more.
posted by drstrangelove at 4:12 AM on March 29 [6 favorites]


But it's almost like political or social Kryptonite to even discuss conservation.

I nominate starting with crypto, particularly bitcoin.
posted by ec2y at 5:04 AM on March 29 [9 favorites]


(…getting rid of it, if that wasn’t clear.)
posted by ec2y at 5:04 AM on March 29 [4 favorites]


Regarding nuclear being "safer than rooftop solar", the important word in that claim is rooftop. I've seen estimates of 0.44 deaths/TWh for rooftop solar installations, although can't find sources to back it up, which would make it one of the most hazardous forms of energy per Terawatt hour since it a) doesn't produce very many watts and b) roofing is one of the most dangerous jobs due to people falling from roof height.

Historically, IAEA bulletin 21 made the claim that nuclear is much safer than solar back in 1979 without any qualifications, although that was both before TMI or Chernobyl and while the total solar production was so negligible that a single injury would be greatly skew the numbers. More recent surveys, such as the previously cited Our World in Data, list 0.07 deaths/TWh for nuclear (largely based on estimates of excess deaths due to Chernobyl) versus 0.02 for all solar in 2014. The increase in total watts produced by large-scale solar over the past few years is likely to have pushed that number even lower.

(Nuclear is still better than gas, oil or coal, by such enormous orders of magnitude that it's a better choice than fossil fuels for base-load generation in combination with wind, solar, hydro, etc. The charts need to be log-scale to even have it show up compared to the fossil fuels)
posted by autopilot at 5:56 AM on March 29 [5 favorites]


But no one wants to hear these things.

Conservation in terms of living the same lifestyle but using less energy to do it is great, but there aren't that many applications left that are easy and cheap the way that swapping to LED bulbs is. Electric cars are great but very expensive. Lots of ways you can do that kind of conservation at home are expensive or require extensive remodeling or both.

And "It would be better if we were all poor. Not poor like poor Americans today but poor like your great-great-grandparents were" is unlikely to be a winning strategy.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:53 AM on March 29 [5 favorites]


Conservation in terms of living the same lifestyle but using less energy to do it is great, but there aren't that many applications left that are easy and cheap the way that swapping to LED bulbs is. Electric cars are great but very expensive. Lots of ways you can do that kind of conservation at home are expensive or require extensive remodeling or both.


Turning things off doesn't take much effort and costs nothing (actually it saves you money.) Turning the heat down when you're away, for instance. Hanging your clothes out to dry rather than using a dryer isn't that much extra effort, either.

But ultimate learning to live with less is going to be necessary part of life if we want to combat climate change. It doesn't have to be bad, it's simply a change of mindset.
posted by drstrangelove at 7:56 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


Hanging your clothes out to dry rather than using a dryer isn't that much extra effort, either.

Hard disagree
posted by bq at 7:59 AM on March 29 [6 favorites]


The TMI accident shows up in several different "disasters in engineering" books I've read, and it's had a big impact in how instrumentation and alerting happen and are handled and what's considered best practices.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:07 AM on March 29


Hanging your clothes out to dry rather than using a dryer isn't that much extra effort, either.


It doesn't HAVE to be but it often, practically, IS, because we have removed all of the infrastructure that used to make it simple and low-effort. I don't have a fucking YARD, my dudes, or even a porch, or even a spare room. if I want to line-dry my clothing I have to move all my furniture and set up a series of folding dry racks, then wait two fucking days while my stuff slowly molders in my small, cold, damp apartment.

I line dry my clothes anyway because the dryer in my building (one, for over 100 people) is always broken. But don't pretend like it doesn't absolutely suck every kind of ass.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:12 AM on March 29 [9 favorites]


(Sorry, that got a bit hyperspecific. I would say that discussions of how "easy" it is to substantially lower one's quality of life ought to take into account that some of our lives already suck a lot and I'm afraid no, we are NOT stoked to make them suck more.)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:17 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


But ultimate learning to live with less is going to be necessary part of life if we want to combat climate change. It doesn't have to be bad, it's simply a change of mindset.

But also, no? The idea that we all can just pitch in and reduce our energy usage to solve climate change is born of corporations and the wealthy shifting blame to individuals. The energy usage from individuals and the impact they can make while maintaining even a moderate standard of living is tiny.

It also stinks of a virtue signaling that ends up being a tool to fight against and with each other.

Which, why, the focus should be (as in this thread) on alternative power sources, possibly nuclear; NOT personal responsibility. And if one must go down the personal responsibility tunnel, it should be to call your politicians and advocate for climate change laws and regulations. Not eschew modern time savers and hang your clothes to dry.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 9:05 AM on March 29 [11 favorites]


I certainly don’t think it’s much harder to make a “human nature” argument that a (voluntary) lifestyle cutback isn’t happening than a “human nature” argument that we’ll inevitably fuck up nuclear.

But it’s kind of beside the point at the moment - nuclear is expensive and takes forever to build, renewables have become cheap as hell. There may be plausible arguments for nuclear as a backstop but that isn’t happening without major public investment.
posted by atoxyl at 9:15 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]


Nuclear is still better than gas, oil or coal, by such enormous orders of magnitude that it's a better choice than fossil fuels for base-load generation in combination with wind, solar, hydro, etc.

Which is one of the reasons why shutting down existing nuclear plant before it reaches end of life only sometimes makes both economic and ecological sense.

Nobody with their head screwed on right is contemplating constructing new coal-fired plant in 2022, though regulatory capture being what it is there do exist distressing numbers of public policymakers with their heads thoroughly cross-threaded.

But when arguing for what to build right now, and what to build over the next thirty years as existing plant does reach end of life, there are simply no good arguments left for nukes. None. Not one. Wind and solar with storage already beats nuclear handily on price, decentralized small- to medium-scale plant will always beat centralized large scale plant on system reliability, and mass production and deployment are driving down the cost of both solar PV and battery storage so fast that in five years the only people still expecting to have arguments for nukes taken seriously will be nuclear industry lobbyists.
posted by flabdablet at 9:15 AM on March 29 [4 favorites]


Around a decade ago I regularly read an excellent blog written by a nuclear engineer which gave a lot of technical details about accidents at nuclear plants. I can't find it and don't even have a bookmark for it so it must have been erased from the internet. My recollection is that it was hosted at MIT but I find no trace of it there. Alas. Please hope me!
posted by neuron at 9:19 AM on March 29


It's as I figured-- even small efforts to make changes are dismissed in favor of blaming everyone else.
posted by drstrangelove at 9:55 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]


I absolutely won’t dismiss efforts to make changes but the bald truth is that labor-saving devices have done a huge amount to improve the lives of (mostly) women in the western world. I’ve recently been reading letters written by my grandmother when her husband was deployed and she was at home with 2 small children. Her life was full of drudgery, to the extent that while she was doing housework my father twice injured himself *with cleaning tools while she was in the room* - once he stuck his hand into the wrangler and once into lye. I don’t think most modern people have any idea of the amount of work that used to be required to maintain a household.
posted by bq at 11:20 AM on March 29 [9 favorites]


It's true, I don't want to hang my clothes to dry.

I don't want to have to buy a bunch of hanging racks or string line all over my house.

I don't want to have to set up something to protect the wood floors from drips. I don't want to have to buy a better/newer washing machine to not need to worry about drips.

I don't want to have to be ducking under and stepping over and sidestepping around my drying laundry for days at a time.

When it warms up again, I don't want to have to traipse through my yard that's ankle-deep mud until Memorial Day as a normal part of doing my laundry. I don't want to have to redo my laundry when it rains on it or birds shit on it. I don't want to come home to my clothes strewn about the neighborhood because we caught another really gusty storm. I want to do my chores on my own schedule and not have to work it around the weather.

And *there's no need for me to do so*

Instead of doing that, we can tax rich fuckwits and put solar just ev-er-y-where. On all the roofs. On all the parking lots. And we can tax rich fuckwits even more and strap reasonably large batteries to everyone's homes. And tax rich fuckwits even more and start swapping out gas dryers and oil/gas/propane heat in favor of heat pumps. And tax rich fuckwits and subsidize tearing open people's walls to really insulate and seal them.

And that's just getting started! We can tax rich fuckwits and hire engineers to design smarter homes with refrigerant loops so that we can move heat from the refrigerator or air or, fuck it, from *the patio outside* into the hot water tank, which won't help for a long while but will at least get it started. We can eventually tax rich fuckwits a little more and subsidize retrofitting this shit into existing homes. We can tax rich fuckwits and start stringing electrical connections down the interstates like third rails for trains so you don't need 500-mile batteries in vehicles, making them much cheaper and lighter. We can tax rich fuckwits and do a real manhattan project on fusion, and another on power satellites, and another on OTEC if that works out to be ecologically sound at scale.

There's no need whatsoever for people to become poor. Earth and cislunar space receive a huge amount of insolation and there's ample stuff around to do other kinds of non-greenhouse-gas power too.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:28 AM on March 29 [10 favorites]


Less. Your country has no problem taxing you for war, your boss has no problem wasting your time for meaningless metrics, fitting the social expectations of your culture and society imposes stress, cost and time lost. The idea that only you can prevent forest fires is nonsense. The policy of the powerful is what matters. If your government wanted to subsidize renewables instead of boner pills, it could; if your boss wanted you to work from home and only as many hours as needed to get the work done, he could. If your society wanted to stop shaming taxing and discriminating against the childless, the frugal and the conservation minded, they could.

The answer is less. not by accident of fad, of consumer choice or Public service announcement, but by policy.

My local government can punish me for letting a lawn grow tall or riding a bicycle on the road, but wont ban burning garbage or idling cars.

My province can subsidize mines and old growth logging but not polyculture farming and birthcontrol.

We subsidized coal while it poisons us, we could shut it by fiat and let the price of power find a new equilibrium from sustainable alternatives.

To the question at hand. Do we need nuclear? No, its a dangerous luxury. If eliminating nukes and fossil fuels by law, by oolicy, by fiat, means working from home, eating less meat, running hi-load appliances during daylight and wearing a sweater then we will get used to it. We manage to tolerate and some unfortunately celebrate our police and governments murdering minorities, activists, journalists etc. Im sure the government could surpress a rebellion of people who insist their tea kettle needs to be powered by nuclear waste.

The same global organized cooperation that lets propaganda, money and weapons travel the world could be turned to promoting other policies.

Less is not poverty and misery. The billions in poverty and misery are in global economy bent on more at all costs and the cost is the livability of the planet.

What is the economy like at chernobyl or fukushima or hanford? There is no economy on an iradiated planet
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 11:48 AM on March 29 [3 favorites]


Hanging your clothes out to dry rather than using a dryer isn't that much extra effort, either.
NYT article on laundry rooms shows pretty rooms, no drying racks; a few pegs have decorative objects on them. Just having a drying rack and hanging rod adjacent to my washer makes not using the dryer really easy. My clothes last a lot longer, saving energy and money. Some line-dried items benefit from a short spin in the dryer to get rid of wrinkles, still easy. Houses are designed and built for show, not necessarily efficient and comfortable living.

In my area, new homes continue to be quite large, though family sizes tend to be small. They're better insulated, for the most part, and have heat pumps and a few other amenities for educed energy use, but they're still using a ton of energy. Until Americans, still the largest consumers of energy as individuals, take climate crisis seriously, we're in deep trouble.
posted by theora55 at 12:17 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


Regarding deaths from solar installs; rooftop solar on commercial flat-roof buildings is likely very safe, and could easily be encouraged with tax rebates. I was appalled by how rare rooftop solar is in Arizona, Colorado, and other very sunny states where it seems such an obvious benefit. I'll bet installing solar panels is comparably dangerous to roofing; and is a fix-able problem. New homes should be required to have a solar/ energy efficiency review. 98% (made up but realistic stat) of new homes are sited with no regard for energy use, passive solar, solar panels.
posted by theora55 at 12:20 PM on March 29 [4 favorites]


My comment wasn't meant to advocate for new nuclear installations, but extending nuclear plant life where economical and stopping disastrously bad decisions like Germany's early plant shutdowns (which turned into more coal and fossil fuel use) seems like a no-brainer.

My hot take is that talking about voluntary conservation is a waste of time. Humans in aggregate don't do it without a fiscal incentive, and where they do do it it merely makes power cheaper for those who use it profligately. Banning proof-of-work crypto sounds nice, but it's like one hit on the whack-a-mole game of banning dumb uses of cheap power. Without taxing externalities through carbon tax we'll be playing that game endlessly and getting nowhere.

I'm not an evangelist for any one technology, or even for tech in general to save us from ourselves. We already have the carbon sequestration tech to save the planet and have been ignoring said tech for decades because we lack the political will to get the job done. Now we're talking about carbon sequestration from the atmosphere as if that's helpful. If we lack the will to sequester carbon at the point of production, how are we going to find the political will to do it at seven to ten times the expense from the atmosphere generally?

Even Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom is so sucked into the cult of the car that he's talking about a $400 subsidy per vehicle owned in California to defray high gas prices. What the actual fuck?

I (mostly) bike to work, line dry clothes, chose a green energy alternative to PG&E, wear a hat and gloves inside the house in the winter, and have replaced every light I can with LEDs (except for the 21 year old automobile), and have pretty much given up on air travel anywhere. I expect that roughly none of that matters in saving the planet. It makes me feel better about my personal contributions, but that's it. Every watt I save gets squandered by some industry that's probably producing more carbon because the lower the demand for power, the cheaper it gets and the more it makes sense for someone else to use it for something lucrative but stupid.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:46 PM on March 29 [4 favorites]


I'm skeptical of nuclear power. The promised next generation, meltdown proof reactors are mostly just engineering drawings at this point and meltdown proof isn't the same as accident proof. The entire process of mining to fuel rod creation and long term storage are not without potential radioactive catastrophes such as an accidental criticality.

I also wonder about the costs and timelines for these plants. Once you have a site and general agreement from various local, state and Federal authorities it is still 20 years and tens of billions of dollars to spend before you ever get any power. There are several multi-billion dollar concrete buildings in the US that were nearly completed nuclear power plants that ended up abandoned in the final stages. It is a lot of money to tie down into a project when in the 20 years before you see any power the costs of battery, solar and geothermal are just getting cheaper.

Of course there are the small scale power plant designs, but those lose out in terms of the economics of operating costs. Nuclear produces the cheapest, most plentiful power available because you can scale it up to multiple gigawatts. The Navy only uses small nuclear plants on aircraft carriers and on submarines because of some very specific military neeeds. Nuclear aircraft carriers are not actually cheaper to operate of maintain -- that's why the latest UK carrier is powered by diesel.

On the other hand we have a pretty good record overall with nuclear power. The costs and environmental impact of fossil fuels is much greater. Our existing nuclear power capacity is in decline and if we don't do something soon we will lose those capabilities for ever. Germany decided to move off nuclear energy, decommissioned its plants and now it finds itself trapped with Russian energy with no easy way to reverse course. If we don't at least stabilize the amount of load we generate with nuclear energy we are basically baking in more gas fired power plants.
posted by interogative mood at 1:09 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


The reason the chorus of nuke-panglosians love the safety record is because assigning a cause to a birth defect or cancer years later is genuinely hard.

Yes, that is why people seem to be just fine with the coal plants (and to a much lesser degree gas plants) that spew orders of magnitude more radioactive material into the air in a year than all the nuclear plants in the world have in their entire lifetimes. It's not even close, even counting the incidents/accidents.
posted by wierdo at 1:10 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


The entire process of mining to fuel rod creation and long term storage

Yeah, alert me when we've solved that on ANY part of the planet that is using nuclear energy.

We can't even clean up the plutonium plant in WA that we stopped using decades ago, and they've been working on that basically since it closed. So far, all the nuclear waste is just sitting in holding areas on the grounds of nuclear plants all over the world (this was a problem with Fukushima), because WE HAVE NO PLAN.
posted by hippybear at 1:29 PM on March 29 [4 favorites]




1) Has anyone on this thread about 3MI nuke accident claimed that coal or oil are good for the environment? No. Not a one. Its a distraction. Implicit in that argument is that power on demand is non negotiable and that renewables and storage are not viable and that nukes despite the fabulous cost, waste and small odds high risk events are somehow useful in a non-substituteable way. Its BS.

2) You can use renewable power to power clothes driers. There's almost no power use that can't be electrified and supplied by renewables. From smelting and foundry work to trains and planes etc. If your packages or products cost 30% more money and take 1 day longer, boo hoo, thats the price of reducing the great filter and allowing mammals including humans to continue living on the earth.

3) Nuclear waste is not monolithic but it requires either hundreds of thousands of years of active containment or passive designs and materials beyond our current abilities that will work successfully for hundreds of thousands of years. Next time you see a plane crash or a bridge collapse ot a.train derail remind yourself that the confidence of engineers is the death of civilians. Now play that game of russian roulette with the whole planet and hundreds of millenia. We haven't even know about plate techtonics for 100years and nuclear engineers think they can design failsafes for millenia. They are dangerously delusional and their expertise in one field makes.them blind to the reprocussions of their limitations and fallibility. Thats why they handed the most powerful weapons over to politicians, lawyers and reality tv show hosts. Because nuclear scientists are gullible and naieve except for when calculating cross-sections and decay rates.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 2:49 PM on March 29 [3 favorites]


A couple of years before the accident, I lived 2 miles from Three Mile Island.
We had moved closer to Harrisburg by 1979, but I was off for training in upstate New York. After the first night of school, I woke up the next morning to the radio saying 'There's been a nuclear accident...', and thought, 'Maybe I should call home'.
My company had put me up in a motel by myself, so my wife and kids came up to stay with me for a week or two.

The China Syndrome. We saw it a few days before the accident. We went to see it with another couple, and the husband worked for the PA Consumer Advocates office. One of the companies he had to deal with was General Public Utilities, and after the movie he said, 'that's just like what those bastards at GPU would do!'
posted by MtDewd at 2:55 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


In related news, I was an exchange student in (then West) Germany in the mid-80s, and I went on a vacation trip to Munich where I went to a famous restaurant and had famous Bavarian food -- wild deer meat with wild mushrooms.

Literally the next morning I woke up to see the big headline on all the newspapers outside the hotel was "BECAUSE OF CHERNOBYL YOU SHOULD NOT EAT WILD DEER OR WILD MUSHROOMS" [paraphrasing, but close].

So, yeah, that's a thing that happens.
posted by hippybear at 3:05 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


nuclear waste is just sitting in holding areas on the grounds of nuclear plants all over the world (this was a problem with Fukushima), because WE HAVE NO PLAN

We had a fairly reasonable plan (in the US), but Harry Reid killed it for good. Happily, once the high level waste is put in dry casks, it doesn't really matter where we put them, at least for the next few hundred years at least, by which time the magic of half lives will have reduced the risk to less than much of the shit we already put up with.

It's a bit weird to say that we don't have any way to make it safe given that we have these big concrete things that already exist filled with waste in a form that is not particularly susceptible to migration and that we've literally crashed freight trains into and burned with a jet liner's worth of fuel to make sure they don't break.

None of this is to say that we should embark on a program of mass expansion of fission power today. Even though it's very clear that the rapid expansion of renewables we have seen, well beyond anyone's prediction isn't enough, it seems unlikely that new nuclear of any sort can go fast enough. I do think we should build new reactors on the off chance that experience improves the timescales, but only in a relatively limited fashion. If we do get it figured out, great, we can build more. If not, we were smart enough to hedge our bets.

One reason I think it's important to keep our options open is that we may well find the need for process heat or more electricity than we have any hope of generating with PV and wind on any reasonable timescale to drive carbon capture projects if we are to have any hope of avoiding the displacement of billions of people.
posted by wierdo at 3:43 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


it doesn't really matter where we put them, at least for the next few hundred years at least, by which time the magic of half lives will have reduced the risk to less than much of the shit we already put up with.

The US is less that 250 years old. Human history in the known record goes back a long time. Civilizations collapse and things change.

And your suggestion about "dry casks" is futile, because the stuff at Hanford is waiting to be somehow vitrified into some kind of stable glass, the processing toward which we have yet to actually figure out. And what about all those spent rods sitting in water around nuclear sites? Can we put THOSE in dry casks? Will just a "few hundred years" make them not horrible? No.

The nuclear waste problem is a giant problem with this technology. I thought the salt mine encasing was the best bet, but others thought not, so....
posted by hippybear at 3:54 PM on March 29 [3 favorites]


Has anyone on this thread about 3MI nuke accident claimed that coal or oil are good for the environment? No. Not a one. Its a distraction. Implicit in that argument is that power on demand is non negotiable and that renewables and storage are not viable and that nukes despite the fabulous cost, waste and small odds high risk events are somehow useful in a non-substituteable way. Its BS.

Yeah, there are plenty of substitutes for nuclear power, but when Germany shut down their nuke plants it took three years before the renewable gains made up for it enough to start reducing fossil fuels. They have a really strong commitment to renewables, but there are limits to how fast renewables can increase, both in terms of production and in terms of sites available for wind and hydro. I'm not arguing that renewables aren't the best option wherever feasible. That's pretty clear, but it's also pretty clear that historically when nuclear power is taken offline we don't take fossil fuel sources off line as quickly. Yes, we could be doing other things as a society to reduce demand, in theory. That doesn't ever seem to happen though. We would need a Chernobyl every other year to make nuclear power as stupid as the fossil fuel choices we're opting for. My argument is that nuclear risks are perceived as worse than coal and oil risks, and even solar and wind risks. It's obvious we shouldn't be building new plants. The fiscal argument alone makes that clear. Extending existing plants despite increased risk of incidents is a less clear argument. Especially when we're not really doing anything to curtail demand for cheap power and not doing enough to capture externalities. We all know the way forward is 100% renewable power, but we're still at something like 80% fossil fuel worldwide.

That said, I'm extremely sympathetic to environmental justice arguments against nuclear in the US, even though there are equally compelling environmental justice arguments calling for a reduction in fossil fuels.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:23 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


Conflating the kind of waste (mostly liquid) created by PUREX and the waste created by commercial power reactors is unhelpful at best.

And yes, we do put spent fuel in those dry casks. It's literally what they were made for. After a few years the really short half life stuff that generates the heat that makes it necessary to store the used fuel rods in spent fuel pools decays, after which they can be put in the casks.

And yes, after a relatively short time they become reasonably safe. Not sleep next to it safe, but safe enough that you won't get a significant dose from being in the vicinity for a short time even if the cask did somehow break open at some point in the distant future. Being encased in ceramic, the fuel itself isn't at a great risk of migrating very far even over long periods of time. While it wouldn't be catastrophic, especially when compared to the shit we spew into the environment with impunity still today, it would still be bad. Which is why we ought to bury the casks in deep storage rather than leaving them sitting around, but again we have Harry Reid to thank for that particular clusterfuck.

Personally, I'm much happier living close to a nuclear reactor than I would be living somewhere where radon accumulation was a thing. Shit, I'd rather live in most of the Fukushima evacuation zone than in a house with radon problems, of which there are literally millions in the US.
posted by wierdo at 4:26 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


TIL that one man who no longer has any political office is the reason why for 80 years and up to the very present day in countries all over the world, we have an allegedly entirely solvable nuclear waste probelm that isn't solved. So I guess that one guy screwed the planet and it can not be undone. Does that sound like a reasonable situation? What does it say about your technology that a Mr Reid could once and forever scuttle its disposal... he even forced fukushima to keep its spent fuel in outdoor pools. The man is like santa clause circling the world climbing down cooling towers and stuffing portfolios filled with coal. I know the internet is where we go to snark and troll and distract our way through this hell we created but even Phantom Menace has a more compelling plot than Harry Reid nuclear waste storage preventer.


Also, if you think radon exposure is hard to mitigate and a big hazard wait until someone introduces you to caesium 137 or strontium 90 or iodine-### or... you know what. I give up. By the time I post this all the millisecond half-life stuff will be nearly benign.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 7:45 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


There are other countries that dispose of their waste. It really was solved in the US except for the one you dismissively refer to as Santa Claus. Decades of study, billions in construction, and then oops, nevermind, a rider got added to a must pass spending bill saying we can't use that one. Put it somewhere else because the perfect is the enemy of the good. Thankfully, the US military doesn't have that issue with their reactor waste, just serious problems with the waste from making bombs.

And I'm quite familiar with strontium, cesium, and iodine isotopes, thanks. Everyone in the US is thanks to the legacy of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. Happily, commercial nuclear reactors are designed and built to contain such things and have an excellent track record of doing so.

And I hate to keep banging the drum, but if your alternative is to shut down reactors before we have replacement energy sources, a side effect of that is to burn more coal in the short term, releasing toxic heavy metals that never go away. At least the radioactive shit eventually decays.
posted by wierdo at 8:13 PM on March 29 [3 favorites]


Biogeo, that video hits all the same downplaying and distraction techniques that most pro-nuclear arguments go into. First was the obligatory "it's better than coal", which is not a pro-nuclear argument in a time when the price of solar has dropped precipitously. Maybe nuclear made sense twenty years ago. Technology has moved on.

Next his "All of the high-level waste ever produced could fit in a football field". Uh huh. So why is it so difficult to store nuclear waste? Also, the other forms of nuclear waste (97% to 99%) are still dangerous; you can't just toss them into a landfill. Finland is going through such lengths for its Onkalo Nuclear Waste Disposal Facility because it's actually NOT that simple. And Finland is the only country in the world to create a permanent, long term solution for nuclear waste. Everyone else has just ignored it or, as in the US, actively fought against it. We are not responsible enough as a society for nuclear power. Heck, not even Japan was.

Are YouTube videos the new TED Talk?
posted by AlSweigart at 10:07 PM on March 29 [4 favorites]


From the article:

The company plans to start removing what remains of TMI-2’s damaged core by mid-2022. It expects to complete the entire clean-up process by 2037.

The accident that damaged TMI-2's reactor core happened on March 28, 1979.
posted by AlSweigart at 10:12 PM on March 29 [6 favorites]


I would be interested to learn how much money TMI has actually returned for its investors over its operating life, who contributed the top 80% of that investment, and especially what percentage of the accrued returns was actually extracted from the public purse via successful externalizing of construction and cleanup costs.
posted by flabdablet at 11:00 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


when Germany shut down their nuke plants it took three years before the renewable gains made up for it enough to start reducing fossil fuels.

In other words, even if the construction rate of renewable plant were to flatline at present-day rates rather than continue to grow exponentially, renewables would be capable of displacing seven times as much fossil fuel plant as a nuke that takes twenty years to build, even in a cold northern European country with fuck-all sunshine and no unused land area to speak of.

Anybody who genuinely believes that nuclear power has anything more than a tiny, specialised niche future should think on that.
posted by flabdablet at 11:11 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


that video hits all the same downplaying and distraction techniques

When the fears are overblown, facts will always appear to be downplaying. As for distraction, in the context of the choices available to us today, it is not at all a distraction to say that the alternatives should we choose to continue decommissioning reactors that can continue to run safely are worse for us both in immediate harm and long term through pumping more carbon into the atmosphere.

All the money in the world won't replace the approximately 20% of US electricity that is generated with nuclear power in any short timeframe. The existing capacity to produce solar panels and wind turbines is already spoken for and it takes time to increase. The time to shut them down is when the work of building renewables is already done and we aren't burning shit to produce electricity any more.

Climate change is going to kill billions of people. Exacerbating it will cost even more lives than if all the nuclear plants in the world all did a Fukushima. If they "only" did a TMI, it would be literally infinitely more lives.

If anything, TMI shows how safe nuclear reactors really are. Despite fuckup after fuckup after fuckup, nothing terrible happened. No long term danger was created. People went back to their lives and have suffered no statistically significant increase in cancer rates. If there was an effect, it was too small to see despite decades of population level monitoring.
posted by wierdo at 11:48 PM on March 29 [3 favorites]


That's like 3000 plus Germans unnecessarily killed by air pollution that didn't have to be in that 3 year span. Those plants still had useful life. Can't really make any rational argument it was a sensible decision.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:32 AM on March 30


if I want to line-dry my clothing I have to move all my furniture and set up a series of folding dry racks, then wait two fucking days while my stuff slowly molders in my small, cold, damp apartment.

There is absolutely no point line drying indoors in spaces that are also being heated. None. Outdoors, yes. Indoors in dry, warm environments, potentially. A good condensing dryer is going to be a lot better for your health, building fabric, and energy consumption than using your building heat to drive water from your clothes into your building interior space.
posted by atrazine at 5:50 AM on March 30


There is absolutely no point line drying indoors in spaces that are also being heated. None. Outdoors, yes. Indoors in dry, warm environments, potentially. A good condensing dryer is going to be a lot better for your health, building fabric, and energy consumption than using your building heat to drive water from your clothes into your building interior space.


Well... you're certainly welcome to pay for me to move to a place with outdoor space and a dry, warm environment, because my 400 sf apartment in Chicago, Illinois, a city which has 7 months of active winter and like 4 low-humidity days per summer will not accommodate nor permit me to have any dryer at all, much less a condensing one. And yet, clothing must be washed, and once it is washed, it must dry.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:45 AM on March 30 [3 favorites]


G
posted by tiny frying pan at 10:11 AM on March 30


Every near miss is an opportunity for pessimists to say there is one less empty chamber in the russian roulette, and for optimists to show that the safe number of trigger pulls has been demonstrated to be higher than some feared. But the odds of accident and the nature of harm are hard to mechanistically determine in a system as complex as a powerplant, let alone an economy. Are the risks associated with pace shuttles, airplanes and nuclear powerplants analogous to russian roulette, or are they analogous to not sunbathing or or some model system? More importantly, what fraction of the world is worth wagering to find out empirically instead of prospectively.



I dont think i have more say about 3mi. I can't advocate energy policy based on one person's chicago difficulties - in a city of several million that has been occupied for more than a century, surely someone managed to dry their clothes without either nuclear power or coal. Canadians can do it, must be socialism.

Finally, and I promise i will retire from this thread reiterate: our total power consumption and its growth are not immutable non-negotiables, nor are the sources. Nuclear is the least nimble and most expensive, whereas conservation and solar and wind are the cheapest and easiest and fastest to deploy. If our priority is to maintain and grow the conspicuous consumption of consumer capitalism, no planet will be enough nor long surivive. If our goal is to share a liviable planet with as many other.people and species as possible, no nukes and fossil fuels are required.

RIP 3MI
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 2:38 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


apologies for the specific derail that I kept failing to bring back to the general point about why, exactly, the drumbeat to "Simply Do Less Be Different Now, You, Individual Human" tend to fall on surly ears. People do not resist the idea of conservation because they suck, and are shitty, and hate the world. They resist it because their lives are already very hard and then someone who has none of their challenges breezes by and says "simply this," where "this" makes their lives tremendously harder.

It just happened that the example given, of laundry (which I did not give, originally), is an area in which I have a lot of personal experience to show what the glib exhortations miss. People do not, I think, recognize the level at which policy changes are needed to make a significant reduction in energy use palatable for someone accustomed to a Western standard of living. An overhaul of zoning, a MASSIVE, nigh-universal retrofitting of dwellings, a COMPLETE rethinking of professional and public norms, probably the dismantling of capitalism.

Now, do I support all those things? Sure, fuckin eh. Can they be done? Absolutely. Will they? Absolutely not. But that's not what people come in to threads hollering about, they just want me to feel shitty that I couldn't somehow fit a three-day laundry process into my normal, 60 hour, capitalist workweek.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 4:21 PM on March 30 [5 favorites]


Canadians can do it, must be socialism.

Canadians call the electric utility "hydro" for a reason. The most populous parts of Canada have had relatively easy access to plentiful, reliable hydroelectric power pretty much since domestic electricity has existed. This is not true everywhere. And this is what's frustrating about the stubborn insistence of, nonono you fools wind and solar for everything. It's not an either-or situation. Wind and solar are great and we should be, and are, scaling up their use dramatically. But not every climate is equally suitable for these technologies. Solar's not economical in places where there tends to be lots of cloud cover, and only some regions have consistent enough wind to make that a viable solution. Concentrating power production only in areas where wind and solar are viable may stress the electric grid in infeasible ways and/or mean power losses during transmission are too high. Not all areas have great grid infrastructure, and not all areas are likely to receive upgrades to their infrastructure at the same pace. Even if we can meet all our energy needs with wind and solar alone, we still need a viable path to get there. But we absolutely cannot afford to keep burning fossil fuels any more, so we can't afford to wait for a wind/solar-only path to become viable.

And even where they can produce plentiful power, our technologies for storing the excess power production during peak hours (e.g., daytime for solar power) and releasing it back to the grid during hours where demand exceeds production (e.g., nighttime) are still developing. In most places where solar and wind have seen widespread adoption, it's still dirty fossil fuel plants that stabilize the grid when demand surges, because unlike wind and solar plants, these can be spun up and down on whenever needed to meet demand. Wind and solar are reducing our dependence upon fossil fuels, which is fantastic, but at the moment it's actually impossible for them to eliminate it. Technologies for storing energy when production exceeds demand and releasing it back to the grid when demand exceeds production are being hotly researched, but we're still not there. And once again, in the meantime, we can't afford to keep burning fossil fuels. We need to have power production that complements wind's and solar's weaknesses, which isn't fossil carbon.

Also, the idea that we can have nuclear power or a world without nuclear waste is actually a false dichotomy. Power production is not the only source of nuclear waste. Nuclear medicine is an absolutely essential part of modern medical practice, and it has no replacement. Numerous treatments and diagnostic procedures depend upon specialized nuclear reactors and particle accelerators to produce radionuclides, and these procedures produce nuclear waste. While the absolute magnitude of this waste is lower than what's generated in power production, arguably it tends to be in a form that's more complex and difficult to contain (e.g., contaminated gloves and biological waste) than what nuclear power plants produce (highly uniform material that can be encased in concrete). Even without nuclear power production, we will need to be able to safely handle surprisingly large amounts of nuclear waste. And fortunately we know how to do this, both for waste from nuclear medicine as well as from nuclear power production. You may argue, if you wish, that reducing the production of nuclear waste to the minimum amount necessary for medical use is the safest option, but we will still need systems in place for safely handling and disposing of nuclear waste. And that same expertise could be applied to nuclear power production.

And finally, although the fossil fuel industry shills have always tried to overstate them, it's nevertheless true that wind and solar have their own negative environmental impact. Solar power production requires the mining of rare earth metals, which has a high environmental (and social) cost. Both methods require a lot of land, and solar power in particular typically requires that land to be pretty heavily covered and disturbed. And the best places for solar production tend to be desert ecosystems which are particularly fragile to that kind of disturbance. Rooftop solar is great for residential needs, where the climate permits, and circumvents the land usage problem by making better use of already disrupted land, but isn't going to meet industrial usage needs. And while the impact of wind turbines on bird and bat migrations has been somewhat exaggerated, it's still an important factor that makes some otherwise-productive sites not available. And as far as I understand, the effect on insect populations remains significant even for newer turbine designs, and the collapse of insect populations is another looming ecological disaster we can't afford to ignore, but it receives much less attention than climate change.

None of the above is a reason for us not to continue to rapidly increase our use of wind and solar power generation, considering how much worse fossil fuel production is than any of these more localized environmental impacts. But the more we continue to scale up wind and solar power generation, and the more land we devote to it, the more significant these impacts become. Nuclear power, while it has its disadvantages, has the advantage of being comparatively compact in its land use, and its local environmental footprint is quite small. Even in Chernobyl, which is basically worst-case as far as nuclear power disasters go, the exclusion zone where it's considered too dangerous to allow people is actually one of the healthiest ecosystems in Europe today, because the presence of humans is far more damaging to wildlife than radioactive waste is. (At least, it was healthy prior to Russia's invasion; I have no idea how much troop movements through the area have impacted the wildlife but I'm sure it's not been great.)

This doesn't mean nuclear power is better than wind and solar. It's not. The problem is always one of scale. At the scale of 19th-century coal burning, fossil fuels were basically fine to use, with no major effect on the atmosphere. But 20th and 21st century scales they are entirely unsustainable. At the current scale of production of photovoltaics, the consequences of mining for the required metals are already being felt, just mostly not in the developed world. At current scales, the land usage devoted to wind and solar power production is not that significant, but at what scale do they represent an unsustainable encroachment of human land usage into ever-dwindling natural habitats? And at what scale of nuclear power production is the risk of a fallout-producing accident occurring unacceptably high?

The solution to the climate crisis is not finding the best method of carbon-free energy production and switching to it. It's shifting to a balanced portfolio of energy production that tries to keep the negative impact of any one method in check by scaling it against alternatives. And yes, there are many informed people who think that nuclear power is going to be an important part of that portfolio, alongside wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, tidal, biomass, and technologies still to come. The fact that these people are willing to include nuclear power in that portfolio doesn't make them fools, or shills, or ignorant of the risks. It means they understand that managing risk is about apportioning it appropriately among the options available.
posted by biogeo at 7:15 PM on March 30 [4 favorites]


we absolutely cannot afford to keep burning fossil fuels any more, so we can't afford to wait for a wind/solar-only path to become viable.

I am going to need to see some hard numbers come out of careful analysis by researchers not beholden to the nuclear lobby to convince me that new nuclear can get us where we need to be faster than allocating all the dollars required for that to the soft path of end use efficiency upgrades plus new distributed renewables plus new distributed storage plus grid upgrades instead. Likewise that ecosystem disruption from the mining required for the soft path, or land use made impossible by it, is worse than those involved in the nuclear fuel cycle. Because every such analysis I've ever seen points squarely in the opposite direction.

The best information I have seen so far tells me that taking new nuclear off the table as a basic public policy assumption, and making exceptions only in the exceedingly rare niche circumstances that careful analysis justifies, is exactly apportioning risk appropriately among the options available.
posted by flabdablet at 9:09 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


it's still dirty fossil fuel plants that stabilize the grid when demand surges, because unlike wind and solar plants, these can be spun up and down on whenever needed to meet demand.

Specifically, it's gas fired peaking plant. Demand response in coal or nuclear plant is far too slow to be used this way.

Gas fired peaking plant is the most expensive grid scale fossil fuel generation available. The economics of new grid scale battery storage already beat those of new gas fired peaking pretty much everywhere, and as battery tech continues to improve and costs continue to fall, that advantage is only ever going to increase.
posted by flabdablet at 9:19 PM on March 30


When I'm talking about allocating dollars, by the way, I'm referring to public policy dollars. Private investors already abandoned new nuclear in the 1970s; the soft path is absolutely what the energy market has already been on for the last forty years, and the main thing that continues to obscure the fact that it's the best path, and continues to make the uptake of necessary elements far too slow, is ongoing public policy support for legacy dinosaur tech - fossil fuelled and nuclear - due to State capture by entrenched interests.
posted by flabdablet at 9:27 PM on March 30


I'm not arguing for keeping nuclear power around just for the sake of keeping it around. I'm arguing for not killing it on the vine because the public perceives a level of risk that's disproportionate to the actual level of risk. I'm happy to criticize markets as tools of social decision making, but if the economics of nuclear power generation are such that, once the costs of regulation and risk management and mitigation are properly internalized, it can literally never compete with other means of energy production, then okay, let the market kill it. But there are still plenty of people who seem to think they can make nuclear power profitably, and not just people looking for massive state subsidies.

Here's an episode of Engineering with Rosie where she interviews an engineer developing small-scale modular nuclear reactors, intended to serve very specific niche functions in power generation. I think it's a particularly interesting interview, as Rosie Barnes is a wind turbine engineer, and also Australian, and as such you might expect her to be vehemently anti-nuclear, but she's pretty dispassionate about the whole thing. By the end of the interview, she's clearly not entirely convinced that the modular nuclear reactor idea is viable, but also thinks that it could have a role to play the net power generation portfolio, and I think has an interesting take overall.
posted by biogeo at 10:03 PM on March 30


Demand response in coal or nuclear plant is far too slow to be used this way.

That's not my understanding. While some amount of power production needs to be spun up reactively when demand increases unexpectedly, often demand surges can be predicted, and so the speed at which a generator can be brought online isn't really the critical factor as much as its availability when it's needed.
posted by biogeo at 10:07 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


The argument about renewables inherently requiring unsustainable mining is frequently put, and although it's clearly coming from a good place, does not support displacing new distributed renewables in favour of new nuclear.

Construction of a nuclear power plant is an insanely slow process. By the time any such plant we committed to now emitted its first generated watt, the renewable tech we could have bought instead would not only be generating far more power than that nuke, but would have been starting to do that roughly ten times earlier.

Unlike the nuke, though, that renewable tech would not be a technological monolith. It would instead be the aggregate of hundreds to thousands of far smaller, shorter projects, each of which was taking advantage of ongoing technological improvements.

Present-day lithium-ion batteries require cobalt, and present-day strong magnets require rare earth metals. Both of those ingredients are problematic. But simply scaling and projecting today's consumption of those resources into an assumed future built entirely from today's renewable tech is not reasonable.

It would be reasonable if renewables were monoliths like the nuclear plant that boosters tout as a necessary alternative, but they've never been that. By the time any nuclear plant begun today could possibly be finished, the sodium-ion batteries and iron nitride magnets in development today will have been in routine deployment for at least a decade.

The entire point of the soft path is that it does allow us to respond quickly and incrementally to new knowledge and new developments and does not anchor us immovably to huge, inflexible, too-expensive-to-write-off embodiments of the unforeseen side effects of past public policy.
posted by flabdablet at 10:11 PM on March 30


if the economics of nuclear power generation are such that, once the costs of regulation and risk management and mitigation are properly internalized, it can literally never compete with other means of energy production, then okay, let the market kill it.

That's exactly the state of the market for new nuclear already. There isn't any being built, not anywhere, without State subsidies.

Small modular reactors are interesting, but I wouldn't bet on their economic viability either. Some might make it to the pilot demonstration stage, but by far the more likely outcome, it seems to me, is that they will be thoroughly outcompeted by incrementally improved mainstream wind and solar and batteries, much as happened to Makani's high altitude kites and Enviromission's solar chimney. Mass production really is a force to be reckoned with.
posted by flabdablet at 10:36 PM on March 30


often demand surges can be predicted

They can also be reduced or displaced by appropriate spot power pricing, often to the net benefit of power consumers. The present-day mix of arbitrarily dispatchable and opportunistic power generation is at least as much an artefact of legacy generation tech as a matter of demonstrable necessity, and should not be set in stone as public policy.

Dispatchability deficits change much more slowly than power requirements, are therefore much easier to predict, and are almost never solved at least cost by adding huge monoliths - themselves a potential source of hugely disruptive unpredictable failures - to the grid.
posted by flabdablet at 10:52 PM on March 30


The high tech in energy that I'm currently most excited about, for what it's worth, is long distance high voltage DC power distribution. Approximately deployed, it has tremendous potential (heh) for matching opportunistic power generation with demand. And we already know it works, because we've already been building it for decades.
posted by flabdablet at 10:58 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


I think your argument about the relative slowness of the timeline for nuclear construction compared to the rate of technological progress is a really strong one, flabdablet. However, some of the next-generation nuclear reactor designs (like the modular design) that are being proposed are less like the technological monolith you describe, and while they're certainly less technologically "agile" in that sense than the current next-generation renewable technologies, the gap is maybe a bit less dramatic than it has been in the past. Still large, but possibly less overwhelmingly so.

It's interesting to note that there is a solar power generation technology that doesn't suffer at all from the problem of mining unsustainable mineral resources, which is solar thermal. However it tends to be more on the large-scale, slow, high-government-investment side of the spectrum, for example, the Ivanpah plant in Nevada. Personally I think it's still worth government investing in loss-leader projects like that one, and possibly some nuclear plants, because it's an important part of the process of technological development. Perhaps the next generation of solar thermal plants will manage to be both more less mineral-intensive and more economically successful than the Ivanpah plant, thanks to lessons learned from its construction and operation. And perhaps the next generation of more modern breeder-style or other nuclear reactors will fill an important niche in the energy economy. We don't need to redirect massive government funds for climate change mitigation to let some energy executives buy new yachts with their nuclear plant profits, or anything. But it seems foolish to me not to at least invest in continuing to explore and develop the technology -- not only nuclear, but solar thermal and every other potentially viable option. And that doesn't mean just research, but building real, working plants, if only at small scale. We're facing serious problems with sustainable power generation today, but those problems won't have disappeared in 20, 50, or 100 years. And the investments we make today might be part of the solution that the generations born on a hot planet will need to help reverse the mistakes of the past.
posted by biogeo at 11:00 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


long distance high voltage DC power distribution

Neat, I'd be interested to hear more. I thought high voltage DC was abandoned at the turn of the 20th century because it was too lossy, what's changed?
posted by biogeo at 11:02 PM on March 30


Better inverters, mostly.
posted by flabdablet at 11:04 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


it seems foolish to me not to at least invest in continuing to explore and develop the technology -- not only nuclear, but solar thermal and every other potentially viable option.

Once we've finished using the most cost-effective options of the evolving present moment to displace all net human-induced movement of carbon from the slow cycle into the fast cycle, I agree that this would be sound policy.

Let's get the climate emergency response done as fast as humanly possible first, though. Anything that looks unlikely to yield a net positive contribution to that inside a twenty year timeframe, allowing for opportunity costs, is probably best deferred for the time being.
posted by flabdablet at 11:29 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


Market forces are already building new solar and wind as fast is financially feasible because, as you have repeatedly noted, it's just plain cheaper until a given grid gets to a very high proportion of renewables.

Now what?

(I suspect nuclear would be cost competitive on very long time horizons, especially if we could build them at the rate we did in the 70s, but that's irrelevant to investors who only care about the next 5-10 years)
posted by wierdo at 2:21 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]


Now what?

If the difficulty is genuinely that the rate of efficiency retrofits and new solar and wind (and presumably battery) deployment is indeed displacing fossil fuels as fast as financially feasible, one proven way to speed it up is to make the financial advantages of doing so even more compelling.

A good start would be (a) electrify everything that's not nailed down and many many things that are - New York's recent gas heating ban is a shining example; (b) remove all existing subsidies and tax concessions for fossil fuel production, processing and power production, and make the resulting savings available as rebates for end-user participation in (a); and (c) continue research and development efforts in alternatives to expensive and limited resources used to manufacture components like batteries and motors and wind turbine alternators, to head off the completely foreseeable and much-bemoaned consequences of not doing so.
posted by flabdablet at 6:37 AM on March 31 [3 favorites]


Apparently the "is nuclear a useful tool for combating climate change" question is very popular lately. Sabine Hossenfelder's latest video goes over the pros and cons pretty thoroughly.

The one thing she doesn't discuss touch on at all is fuel reprocessing, which would be very important in the long term if we were to dramatically expand the use of nuclear power.
posted by wierdo at 5:26 PM on April 9


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