No nuclear renaissance

by John Quiggin on March 17, 2011

Over the fold, an opinion piece I wrote for today’s Australian Financial Review. Non-Oz readers may need to Google some names. Also, although it refers mainly to US experience, the piece is written with an eye to influencing Australian policy debates, so some of the angles may seem a little counter-intuitive to those outside Oz.


No nuclear renaissance

As the crisis in Japan continues to worsen, advocates of nuclear power have hastened to offer reassurance that their preferred power source is still a viable option in the race to replace carbon-based sources of energy. The earthquake and tsunami represent an extreme worst case, unlike to be observed in less seismically active areas than Japan.

So far at least, the worst case outcomes of a core meltdown and Chernobyl-style release of radioactivity have been avoided. Although some radioactive steam has been omitted, the total health risks remain far below those of coal-fired power, even disregarding CO2 emissions.

As Ziggy Switkowski observed yesterday, “We will learn from the tragic Japanese experience how to build more robust reactors, how to ensure multiple layers of protection work properly, how to better contain radioactive gases,”

All these points are valid, but, unfortunately, irrelevant. The attempt to restart the nuclear industry, sometimes optimistically called the ‘nuclear renaissance’ was already on the edge of failure before this crisis. Even with the best possible outcomes from the current crisis, nuclear power is off the agenda for a decade or more, at least in the developed world.

The nuclear renaissance was launched in the United States by George W Bush with the Nuclear Power 2010 program, unveiled in 2002. This was followed by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 which authorized $18.5 billion in loan guarantees. All of these initiatives were carried on and extended by the Obama Administration, which proposing to triple federal loan guarantees.

The initial reaction was highly positive, with dozens of proposals being announced. By the end of 2008, 26 proposals had been received by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But by the end of 2010, more than half of these had been abandoned, and ground had been broken on only two sites, with a total of four reactors. In October 2010, Constellation Energy pulled out of a joint venture with French firm EDF, saying that more loan guarantees, with less stringent conditions, were needed. Similar problems have emerged in France, Finland and other developed countries, where construction projects have encountered delays and massive cost over-runs, with the result that plans for expansion have been scaled back sharply.

Even assuming the best possible outcome from the Japanese crisis, the economic case for nuclear power, already fragile, has been severely, and probably fatally, damaged. At least eleven reactors have been taken off line. Three of the reactors at the Fukushima site have already been rendered permanently inoperable by the pumping of seawater into the storage pools and three others may follow. The evacuation of 200 000 people, at a time when the earthquake and tsunami have already stretched resources to the limit, will have massive costs, running into the billions unless the situation is resolved rapidly.

Doubtless, as Switkowski has argued, the failures in cooling and containment systems that gave rise to the present crisis can be overcome and reactor designs modified to improve safety. But safety doesn’t come cheap, and redesigns mean delay. With no prospect of any further increases in subsidies and loan guarantees, it seems likely that most of the proposals for new nuclear power plants in the US will be abandoned. And, if only for reasons of diversification and speed of construction, the lost Japanese reactors will probably be replaced by gas-fired plants, with some renewables.

But why are the economics of nuclear so bad? In part, it is simply a matter of technology. Nuclear power has turned out to be more expensive than its advocates have expected, while alternative sources of energy, particularly gas, have become cheaper. Even solar photovoltaics, long seen as impractical, are now cost competitive with nuclear on some calculations.

But the crucial problem for nuclear power has been fear. Fears about safety have meant that nuclear power plants have been held to much higher safety standards than alternatives like coal, which routinely spew pollutants of all kinds into the atmosphere.

More important than these fears, however, is the fear and ignorance displayed by those who have obstructed the most important single factor needed for nuclear power to become viable – a price on emissions of carbon dioxide. Some claim, like Lord Monckton, that climate science is a plot to restore the fortunes of global communism. Others like Cardinal Pell, who apparently believes that nitrogen is a greenhouse gas, say that, having ‘studied this stuff a lot’, they are qualified to overrule the experts.

Ironically, many opponents of climate science pose as defenders of nuclear power. In reality, they are its deadliest enemies.

{ 278 comments }

1

AcademicTrad 03.17.11 at 3:47 am

After a recent trip to China, I am a zealot of a convert to nuclear power–at least you can breath.

2

PHB 03.17.11 at 4:46 am

The big problem with nuclear power is the lies of the nuclear power industry.

When Chernobyl blew up we were told that the cause was sloppy Soviet engineering and that the lack of a reactor containment vessel was the key design flaw. Now we have two US designed reactors with ruptured containment vessels undergoing at least a partial meltdown.

A plant that still generates 10 MW of heat after being ‘shut down’ and continues to produce 5MW of heat a year later is not ‘failsafe’ by any meaningful definition. Without the cooling system the reactor will heat up and no containment vessel on earth is going to survive the resulting temperature.

There are much safer designs available but these are not the designs that were to be built under the renaissance funding. At this point it is pretty clear that the renaissance program is dead for all practical purposes.

The most urgent priority in Japanese politics is going to be to decommission the remaining nuclear plants as quickly as possible, beginning with the defective Mk 1 boiling water design. I would suggest a crash program of building renewables, beginning with wind power and moving to wave and solar.

Market forces work very slowly when one technology is being displaced by another. Most of the time, the market is best left to itself but there are exceptions when a command approach is required. This is one of those times.

The US is currently planning to spend over a trillion dollars purchasing and flying a new fighter jet that will contribute exactly nothing to the US economy. It is a pure waste of time and resources. If the same money was spent on renewable energy the US could likely be energy independent. The US has the resources and so does Japan. The question is whether the government will choose to spend or invest.

3

john b 03.17.11 at 5:06 am

There are much safer designs available but these are not the designs that were to be built under the renaissance funding.

Sorry, you’re claiming that the renaissance funding was going to pay for a new build of GE mk1 BWR designs? I’m, erm, sceptical.

4

Landru 03.17.11 at 5:14 am

Fear and cost are intertwined in many ways. There’s a good argument to be made that, in the US the plant that did in the nuclear industry was not Three Mile Island but Shoreham on Long Island. After being completed at great expense (including overruns attributed to regulatory changes and corruption in the NY-area construction industry, tell me you’re shocked) in about 1985 the Shoreham plant was never operated, as local politicians from Governor Mario Cuomo on down led the peasants with pitchforks against anything “nuclear” and so socked the utility with a several billion dollar loss (which the peasants had to pay off in the long run through local rate increases).

Investors may be willing to pro-rate a risk of accident or disaster that can be described within the laws of Nature. But what premium would be high enough to offset the risk — one in ten? one in two? — that local politicians will conclude they can catch more votes with demagoguery than through campaign contributions? It’s politics, not physics, that drives up the effective cost of utilizing this nearly-free source of energy, effectively to infinity.

I fear JQ is correct, that politics will trump physics again for the foreseeable future. For those interested in touring the counter-factual universe in which nuclear plants are built for safety and efficiency according to the best physics, I recommend learning/dreaming about the “liquid fluoride thorium reactor” concept; a good central starting point is this blog: http://energyfromthorium.com/ , check out the informative videos especially.

5

Lurker Grad Student 03.17.11 at 6:26 am

What about nuclear waste? The one thing nuclear advocates always gloss over is the disposal of nuclear waste. Now, nuclear plants store the stuff on site but from what I understand this is not a good solution. A centralized storage area is not a solution because of transportation issues. There is not way you can guarantee that there will not be an accident involving transport. I really don’t understand why some people are such passionate advocates for nuclear.

6

Jake 03.17.11 at 6:45 am

When Chernobyl blew up we were told that the cause was sloppy Soviet engineering and that the lack of a reactor containment vessel was the key design flaw. Now we have two US designed reactors with ruptured containment vessels undergoing at least a partial meltdown.

Chernobyl blew up and spewed lots of bits of the reactor core all over Europe. As near as people can tell, the Japanese reactors are releasing small quantities of comparatively innocuous radioactive steam in their general vicinity. The situation in Japan has not played itself out yet, but so far the two are not remotely comparable. And the difference between the situations does come down to sloppy Soviet engineering.

It should mean something that the disaster in progress at the Japanese nuclear plants so far seems like it might kill a few tens of nuclear power industry workers. This is a tragedy, but the problem at the nuclear plant is the direct result of a massive earthquake that killed a few thousand people in minutes.

It’s still too early to draw firm conclusions and things may still go horribly wrong, but the problems from the nuclear power plant are still only a small fraction of the problems Japan is facing from the earthquake and tsunami.

7

Myles 03.17.11 at 7:12 am

I think we desperately need a Fukushima watch thread as an information clearinghouse. Right now the web is full of news agency blather and very little actual facts. I am finding it difficult to get concrete facts understandable for a general audience anywhere.

For those who live near Japan and on the west coast of North America, this would be especially useful in monitoring the progress of possible ramifications. Thanks.

8

Happy 03.17.11 at 7:49 am

As an Aussie, I’m well aware of the climate towards nuclear power – so the question is really simple: what are the alternatives?
Coal is a problem – and we contribute significantly to that through our exports to China and elsewhere.
Oil and Gas are a problem – the downside of an offshore drilling accident is also pretty horrific.

We either move voluntarily (and soon) away from the current fuel cycles or be compelled to do so at some later stage as our new climate starts to kick in and political blindness evaporates in regard to that.

We are fantastically positioned to make significant inroads via solar, wind and geothermal… but we’re doing fuck all about that… and none of those (except geothermal and perhaps solar thermal) make inroads into the “base load” problem.

Forgetting the cost, simply installing 3kW of photovoltaics on a significant number of houses is a job of epic proportions (not to mention the CO2 producing energy required to produce all that silicon, aluminium and copper).

The “smart grid” is all political and accounting subterfuge – physics doesn’t play nice when you have our distances and population densities to deal with.

All the low hanging fruit is gone – the numbers for installing nuclear power stations, the safety requirements etc etc all look insane until compared with the cost of alternatives or even the status quo… the downside of nuclear power is apparent to everyone but the upside (I suspect) is that it’s by far and away the cheapest way to solve the “base load” issue without invoking a whole bunch of other technologies that we can’t make or won’t scale.

And that’s just here where our infrastructure is relatively high tech and our labour force is skilled…

9

gordon 03.17.11 at 8:51 am

George Monbiot agonises quite intelligently over the choice facing people who are wedged, as it were, between desire to mitigate AGW and distrust of the nuclear industry.

He comes up with four conditions which, if met, would lead to his supporting nuclear energy:

1. Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option.

2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried.

3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay.

4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes.

To this he adds a fifth, that nuclear installations not be placed at locations subject to earthquake, tsunami or other natural disasters.

http://www.monbiot.com/2011/03/16/atomised/

It’s and interesting article, but I fear that, since his five conditions are a long way from being met, he has only succeeded in articulating the reasons for his opposition to nuclear. Still, that might itself be a useful contribution to the debate.

And Myles might like to check out the ABC Japan Earthquake page – it’s the closest I’ve seen to the “watch thread” he’s looking for:

http://www.abc.net.au/news/events/japan-quake-2011/

10

gordon 03.17.11 at 9:07 am

11

Tim Worstall 03.17.11 at 9:46 am

“Three of the reactors at the Fukushima site have already been rendered permanently inoperable by the pumping of seawater into the storage pools and three others may follow.”

Pumping seawater into the storage pools doesn’t make any difference at all to the operability of the reactor. Pumping seawater into the reactor, which they have done, does.

“Even solar photovoltaics, long seen as impractical, are now cost competitive with nuclear on some calculations.”

I would dearly love to see such calculations. I could even construct such that showed this: but the solar PV would be powering a telephone box 50 miles from the grid to make it work. Rather than say base load to run a factory with.

I do agree that solar PV will beome cost competitive even with coal but we’re a decade or so away from that (we want multijunction solar PV, 35-40% efficiency). Forgive me for being Panglossian but as I see it our problem isn’t how do we create a low carbon energy generation system, we know (or at least can see how to) how to do that. It’s just that the necessary technologies are not yet ready for prime time (see, solar, and then the batteries/fuel cells/pumped hydro etc argument over how to store intermittently produced power). So, what do we do between here and there, that decade or so gap before the new technologies are economic and thus everyone starts using them by choice?

It’s not even really true that we must spend more on R&D. There’s no problem at all in getting VC funds if you’ve an idea that looks like it might even possibly work. What we almost certainly shouldn’t do however is subsidise the installation of huge amounts of the current renewables technology given he price declines already going on (solar PV, current tech, is declining in price by 20% pa for example. Holding off only a few years drastically reduces the price of an installation).

“a price on emissions of carbon dioxide.”

Of course: perhaps Nordhaus’ low and rising price (my preference) or Stern’s high one now, but a carbon tax, yes please.

” I would suggest a crash program of building renewables, beginning with wind power and moving to wave and solar.

Market forces work very slowly when one technology is being displaced by another. Most of the time, the market is best left to itself but there are exceptions when a command approach is required. This is one of those times.”

But a crash program, right now, would be vastly more expensive than waiting for general installation until the technologies have matured. Just as an example from my own working life, with solid oxide fuel cells. We could go all out right now and power cars, homes, factories, with such fuel cells. But we know that the current technology (for geeks, using yttria stabilised zirconia) has problems, it’s less efficient than it could be, runs at a higher temperature than necessary and isn’t robust in the long term (geek point, specifically, cycling from off/cold to on/hot makes the plates crack and thus need replacement). We also know how to solve this problem (use scandia/yttria stabilised zirconia). But we’ve a problem here. We’ll need hundreds of tonnes of scandia a year to feed that technology. Current global production is of the order of 3 tonnes pa.

OK, so someone’s got to go and work out how to extract more (there is no shortage in the crust, just working out how to extract it at reasonable cost) and according to the grant application I’ve just filed that’s a 3-5 year task.

No, I don’t insist that this particular technology is the be all and end all: only that all of the potential technologies we might use face very similar problems. We need not just to design the specific renewable, we need to build and in some cases still design the industrial infrastructure behind them: if you don’t want to think about fuel cells, then think of the requirements in specific ships to build offshore wind farms. Or boosting global gallium and germanium production to make solar PV from.

It all simply takes time, even if we already know what it is that is necessary.

“1. Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option.

2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried.”

1) We do: about the same as hydro and wind, lower than solar PV. 2) We do: vitrification.

12

roger 03.17.11 at 11:30 am

Tim Worstall lives in a pleasanter world, where nuclear power is a transition to an economy that uses energy which produces a lower level of greenhouse gases. But, in fact, we live in an economy where there’s no evidence that nuclear power has ever operated in this transitional way. Rather, we get nuclear power, with its accidents and their scope – which should be included in any price comparison with, say, solar – and increasing use of petroleum.

The word ‘transitional’ is a nice, soothing word. Like the word ‘puppy’. But there is no transitional activity going on in the world at the present time, except as a nice word in policy papers.

The disconnect between what we ‘need’ – given our projections about the environment – and what we don’t get – via our economic choices – should tell us something about the sum value of our economic choices. In 1828, in a scathing review of James Mill’s book on government, Macaulay, from a conservative Whig’s point of view, pointed to one of the key defects of utilitarian thinking: “Throughout his essay, he confounds the community with the species. He talks of the greatest happiness of the greatest number: but, when we examine his reasonings, we find that he thinks only of the greatest number of a single generation.

Therefore, even if we were to concede that all those arguments of which we have exposed the fallacy are unanswerable, we might still deny the conclusion at which the essayist arrives. Even if we were to grant that he had found out the form of government which is best for the majority of the people now living on the face of the earth, we might still without inconsistency maintain that form of government to be pernicious to mankind. It would still be incumbent on Mr Mill to prove that the interest of every generation is identical with the interest of all succeeding generations.”

Mill has gotten the best of that argument so far, in my opinion. But it is looking like Macaulay’s objection is starting to kick in – as the interest of the present generation is beginning to conflict seriously with the living conditions we can expect for the next generation, or the one after that.

13

Zamfir 03.17.11 at 11:40 am

@Myles: the JAIF status updates have been the main primary source of information for days now. Nearly all other stuff you read is interpretation of those.

The JAIF itself assembles them from other sources, but if you are not a Japanese-speaking nuclear engineer, you won’t be able to assemble better info yourself.

Of course, interpretation is important too, but there is simply is no reason to believe there is an authorative interpretation. Even the NRC and the NISA seem to have somewhat different interpretations of the same facts. All you can do is ignore the really obvious idiots, either on the doom or the everything-s-alright side.

Also, read up on what certain doses in Sieverts (and milliSievert etc) do to people. Those measurements are the only sort-of hard data you are going to get, and it helps if you get a feel for what levels are only unusual, what levels might be unhealthy and what levels might be lethal. Make sure you don’t mix micros and millis.

14

Tim Worstall 03.17.11 at 12:21 pm

“Also, read up on what certain doses in Sieverts (and milliSievert etc) do to people. Those measurements are the only sort-of hard data you are going to get, and it helps if you get a feel for what levels are only unusual, what levels might be unhealthy and what levels might be lethal. “

Indeed. One banana a day for a year (the Banana Equivalent Dose) is some 35 microsieverts. The numbers from a few days back, of 1,000 micro sieverts dropping rapidly to 500, were worrying only if someone was going to inhale such for days or weeks.

Hundreds of milli sieverts however are indeed worrying (one nuclear engineer of my aquiantance says his dosimeter shows he gets 2 ish milli sieverts a year). 3,000 sieverts is more like standing right next to the Chernobyl reactor as it was burning.

But there is one other very important point: duration. It matters hugely which isotope we’re actually talking about. If it’s the gas from the venting of the pressure inside the reactor, then it’s almost all N16. With a half life of 5 seconds, when it becomes O16. Entirely trivial unless you’re right there sucking in great lungfuls of it.

Cs 137, with a half life of 30 years (and a likely product of an exposed core) is entirely another matter.

Strangely, the plutonium (if any does escape from that MOX reactor) is more dangerous as a chemical poison than it is as a radioactive one.

15

a.y. mous 03.17.11 at 12:26 pm

I don’t work in the field, so I don’t know if it is 100% correct, but http://morgsatlarge.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/why-i-am-not-worried-about-japans-nuclear-reactors/ was one place that seemed to be fairly informative. It’s now been moved to http://mitnse.com/ so that much more authoritative.

16

Western Dave 03.17.11 at 1:23 pm

@a. y. mous the original post was not reliable, see the rather lengthy discussion at LGM. The new site at MITNSE does not interpret the information, although it does contain useful information to allow you to interpret it. I’m sticking with the BBC website, which has been pretty clear in differentiating what is fact and rumor and has been paying close attention to the waste ponds all along.

17

chris 03.17.11 at 1:43 pm

Oil and Gas are a problem – the downside of an offshore drilling accident is also pretty horrific.

Indeed, and they don’t even need the magnitude 9 quake first. Drilling is unsafe even without a natural disaster.

But a crash program, right now, would be vastly more expensive than waiting for general installation until the technologies have matured.

The Apollo Program was expensive, too. But ultimately it was what *caused* a lot of the technologies involved to mature. Technology doesn’t mature on its own — someone has to be working on it, which they will probably only do if there’s something worthwhile in it (either a government research grant, or the technology to be developed will be profitable if it works, inherently or through subsidy).

18

Tim Worstall 03.17.11 at 1:49 pm

@ 17: Fair enough. I’m not averse (as one of the likely recipients) to a crash program of investigating, designing, researching, the technologies.

My complaint is more about the calls for crash programs of the installation of the current generation of technology. They’re just not ready yet.

19

JM 03.17.11 at 1:51 pm

When Chernobyl blew up we were told that the cause was sloppy Soviet engineering and that the lack of a reactor containment vessel was the key design flaw. Now we have two US designed reactors with ruptured containment vessels undergoing at least a partial meltdown.

I sympathize with your position, but arguing this way will get you ignored by anyone who knows anything about the problem.

It was indeed sloppy Soviet engineering that led to disaster, including a computer that still used core memory and that had to be fed a stack of punchcards every time it booted up, running a reactor that relied on its heat exchanger like a control rod, such that when steam formed in the pipes the reactor got hotter, which created a dangerous feedback loop, especially during startup and shutdown. The reactors at Fukushima do the opposite (i.e., they have a negative void coefficient).

But worst of all, Chernobyl had a graphite core, which is fine unless it’s exposed to air when red-hot, at which point it will burn. The Fukushima reactors have no equivalent structure. Fukushima can release radioactive steam. Chernobyl rained 1200 tons of radioactive graphite on Europe, mainly Belarus.

There is simply no comparison.

20

Straightwood 03.17.11 at 1:53 pm

The latest accident reveals that the standard reactor designs are intrinsically unsafe. The absence of electrical power or destruction of their control facilities will lead to a serious radiation release within hours or days. If nuclear power is to be revived, truly fail-safe designs must be developed, including fail-safe storage of spent fuel. A satisfactory design should be stable and safe with zero external power supplied.

21

Metatone 03.17.11 at 1:57 pm

The MIT Nuclear Engineering student blog has been pretty good so far at rounding up information and applying intelligence to it:

http://mitnse.com/

Carbon Tax would help nuclear, but the big problem is insurance… that’s the usual stumbling block for private provision of nuclear plants – if the government refuses to subsidise (and often, actually provide) the insurance, the investment is not economic.

22

Josh G. 03.17.11 at 1:59 pm

To all the people who discussed “storage” of spent fuel: That’s precisely the problem. We should be *reprocessing* this fuel and reusing it, not foolishly trying to sequester it for millennia.

23

Bill Gardner 03.17.11 at 2:00 pm

The Apollo Program was expensive, too. But ultimately it was what caused a lot of the technologies involved to mature.

Off-thread, but what is the evidence for this? In a counterfactual world without manned space exploration, what’s the example of a technology that was useful for something other than manned space exploration that wouldn’t have developed just about as quickly? Seems like most of the stuff came off the military shelf, and would have been there without Apollo.

24

Sev 03.17.11 at 2:05 pm

A moderate and steadily increasing carbon tax. My view is that people grossly underestimate the importance of conservation and pay too much attention to energy sources- important, to be sure, but secondary to the question of how much energy we actually need. Cost per unit is also less critical at lower usage. Were the incentives right, investment and consumer decisions would drive us as individuals, communities and businesses to use far less energy than we presently do. My seat of pants guesstimate is that we could live very well on 1/4 of what we presently use (I’m thinking US, but even applied to Europe). Amory Lovins has talked about this for decades.
As an example, heating/cooling is major residential load in temperate climes. And can be virtually eliminated: http://www.oregonlive.com/hg/index.ssf/2009/02/passive_house_the_idea_of_the.html

25

Xray 03.17.11 at 2:07 pm

What was the immediate problem that caused the Japanese reactors to fail? The earthquake, or the subsequent power fail. If the latter, power failures can occur anywhere and anytime.

26

Straightwood 03.17.11 at 2:35 pm

@22

Unfortunately, reprocessing creates bomb-grade fissionable material. Nuclear power seems to resist easy answers. It is almost as though nature is telling us not to use it.

27

Mike 03.17.11 at 2:36 pm

@22 I’m glad you said this. Why we don’t do this now is something I’ve wondered for a long time, but this seems like an excellent solution to the storage problem…at least for a little while. Also, have you seen some of the plans for the sequestration sites? Very interesting design problem when you have to create something to warn people that might not understand your symbols or language in 10,000 years.

Because I don’t have the knowledge to really join this discussion, and I apologize if I sound like an idiot, I have a few questions for anyone that might know. How many times can fuel be reprocessed, or is it essentially limitless; is there waste involved in the reprocessing, and what happens to that; can this be done on site, or would the spent fuel need to be sent elsewhere, processed, and sent back out?

28

Chuchundra 03.17.11 at 3:24 pm

@25

Large-scale energy production in general resists easy answers. It’s almost at though nature is telling us that we should go back to being subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherers.

29

Lemuel Pitkin 03.17.11 at 3:34 pm

simply installing 3kW of photovoltaics on a significant number of houses is a job of epic proportions

Given that most rich countries now are faced with large output gaps and high unemployment, so that the main economic-policy challenge is finding a politically acceptable way to raise public spending substantially, this counts as an argument for renewables, not against.

30

Pete 03.17.11 at 3:43 pm

“storage” of spent fuel: my understanding is that the medium-term storage ponds for rods that have been removed from the reactor are a serious risk at the Japanese reactors; if they aren’t cooled they can potentially heat up to the point of failure and release of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Is this correct?

31

Zamfir 03.17.11 at 4:18 pm

@Pete, I have undersood from personal communication with people with a good understanding of the issue that this not currently a risk, the rods are too old to melt themselves. But understand that this is back-of-the-envelope work at a distance, not secret info.

Their zirconium cladding can burn, they can crack and fall apart (releasing radioactive gases etc.) and they can release lots of direct radiation to their environment

But the really dangerous failure mode would be a complete disintegration, because then relatively large amounts of non-gaseous isotopes can become airborne and spread over distances. This seems not a risk right now, natural cooling with air should be enough to prevent this. This is not a priori obvious, fresher fuel could have this failure mode.

If this is correct, the main risk of the spent fuel is that it might radiate so strong that it limits other work hard in their neighbourhood.

32

Anderson 03.17.11 at 4:23 pm

Doubtless, as Switkowski has argued, the failures in cooling and containment systems that gave rise to the present crisis can be overcome and reactor designs modified to improve safety.

This happened a while back; the Fukushima design was being criticized by nuclear bigwigs in this country back in 1972 or so.

We have, I think, 6 in the U.S., but they seem to work pretty well if they’re not hit by quake-tsunami combos.

33

Myles 03.17.11 at 4:28 pm

@gordon: thanks.

34

chris 03.17.11 at 4:30 pm

I read somewhere that there are 64 working nuclear generation plants providing 20% of the electricity in the US. Many of them are near the end of their operational lives.
I have many questions but here are three:
1) How much would it cost and how long would it take to generate 50% of electricity needs using the safest known nuclear technology? Money is no object. Costs to be calculated in switch-on day dollars assuming inflation of 2% per year and include the entire lifespan and carbon footprint of the plant.
2)Do the same thing with renewables and efficiency programs.
3)Which do you prefer in your neighbourhood?

35

Myles 03.17.11 at 4:30 pm

Thanks also @Zamfir. Are we getting any data from U.S. Navy nearby?

36

Straightwood 03.17.11 at 4:31 pm

The reassurances just don’t hold up. At Three Mile Island, the cause of failure was faulty instrumentation; at Chernobyl an out-of-control experiment; and at Fukushima, a Tsunami. Each of these sites suffered catastrophic destruction, nullifying their economic value and threatening or delivering dangerous releases of radioactivity.

Current nuclear power sites are intrinsically vulnerable to ANYTHING that disrupts their cooling systems. A few days without electricity or control systems and you have a billion dollar loss and potential dirty bomb. This is not a technology that a prudent civilization should deploy.

When reactors are made that will shut down safely absent all electric power, then it will be time to build new ones. Until then, the existing reactors should be decommissioned as soon as possible.

37

Zamfir 03.17.11 at 4:41 pm

This happened a while back; the Fukushima design was being criticized by nuclear bigwigs in this country back in 1972 or so.

This really, really bothers me. This is not a crisis out of the far field, it’s a long list of textbook examples. Station black-out, hydrogen explosions, fuel pool uncovering, weak secondary structures. Lots of things people have tried to address in newer designs, because they were known risks. We just thought they would not add up to enough risk.

So our end conclusion was that the old ones could stay open. When money came into play, we did settle for “good enough”, not “as safe as possible”. And then we were wrong about good enough.

That’s not a problem solvable just by better designs, because there will always be a moment when tight budgets hit safety norms. And it will always be tempting to consider the high norms you established a bit outlandish later, when they require you close down things.

38

chris 03.17.11 at 4:42 pm

39

Substance McGravitas 03.17.11 at 4:44 pm

Each of these sites suffered catastrophic destruction, nullifying their economic value and threatening or delivering dangerous releases of radioactivity.

Three Mile Island has one currently operating reactor.

40

Tim Worstall 03.17.11 at 4:46 pm

“A few days without electricity or control systems and you have a billion dollar loss “

Be interesting to know what an earthquake plus tsunami did to any solar or wind systems that Japan had. Complete write offs as well?

41

roger 03.17.11 at 4:55 pm

Two Union of Concerned Scientists posts discuss the generator problem at U.S. plants here:
http://allthingsnuclear.org/tagged/Japan_nuclear?utm_source=SP&utm_medium=link1&utm_campaign=japan-crisis-3-13-11-link1

42

Straightwood 03.17.11 at 5:00 pm

@39

The cleanup of Three Mile Island took 12 years and cost over $900 million. That was the cleanup, not the replacement cost. The profitability of the investment in Three Mile Island is a settled question.

43

Substance McGravitas 03.17.11 at 5:08 pm

The profitability of the investment in Three Mile Island is a settled question.

I’m not arguing about the worth of Three Mile Island, but the way you phrased it made it look like it was destroyed in the same sense as the other two plants and it isn’t.

44

Matt 03.17.11 at 5:09 pm

The long term waste problem of nuclear power should not be ignored, but neither should the long term waste problems of its fossil competitors. A substantial part of CO2 emitted today from fossil fuels will still be in the atmosphere 10000 years from now, barring active scrubbing efforts. Mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and other hazards that appear in coal stack emissions and in the ash are not sequestered from the environment either and will be around as long as the Earth is. I don’t object to increased nuclear safety standards but I will be very unhappy if the quest for improved nuclear safety leads to greater use of its objectively worse fossil-combustion competitors.

45

Myles 03.17.11 at 5:19 pm

Be interesting to know what an earthquake plus tsunami did to any solar or wind systems that Japan had. Complete write offs as well?

Really, Tim, I don’t think the write-off solar and wind systems is the thing that’s making the markets shit bricks right now.

46

Barry 03.17.11 at 5:44 pm

Tim, the write-offs of solar systems would pretty much parallel the write-off in housing, and not be a major feature or problem or additional loss. Wind would be variable (it likes to be up high or offshore; both of which would be safer), and it would be more distributed, which aids local power distribution.

IOW, please think a bit.

47

Farren Hayden 03.17.11 at 5:46 pm

@Straightwood

Chuchundra nailed it. Without comparing to hydro or coal, one of which does massive environmental damage over a long term and the other in its construction, your demand for extraordinarily high standards in nuclear energy production – which in the absence of earthquake-tsunami combos and even taking into account waste is has the least impact of the three and if the whole record is examined has the least impact over time – seems peculiar.

You’ve offered a some numbers for one of the single-digit number of nuclear plant disasters that have happened in the past century, but the environmental cost of coal plants is at this point probably incalculcalable. Why the selective analysis?

Unless you have similar demands about other energy generation technologies?

48

ScentOfViolets 03.17.11 at 5:46 pm

Forgetting the cost, simply installing 3kW of photovoltaics on a significant number of houses is a job of epic proportions (not to mention the CO2 producing energy required to produce all that silicon, aluminium and copper).

Indeed. The advocates for solar energy and other advocates often forget this. Just because the energy is free doesn’t mean converting it into a usable form is going to be either adequate or cost effective.

The “smart grid” is all political and accounting subterfuge – physics doesn’t play nice when you have our distances and population densities to deal with.

Right. The tragedy of the commons, as it were. Right now, we don’t have to worry about storage and transmission issues because so few people are going with photovoltaics. But the solution we have now – having the utilities pay for excess power sent back up the wire, for example – won’t work for very large populations.

All the low hanging fruit is gone – the numbers for installing nuclear power stations, the safety requirements etc etc all look insane until compared with the cost of alternatives or even the status quo… the downside of nuclear power is apparent to everyone but the upside (I suspect) is that it’s by far and away the cheapest way to solve the “base load” issue without invoking a whole bunch of other technologies that we can’t make or won’t scale.

Agreed. For a good first cut as to why nonnuclear alternatives can’t be used for base loads in most developed parts of the road, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air is a good introduction to the issues.

49

ScentOfViolets 03.17.11 at 5:50 pm

Rather, we get nuclear power, with its accidents and their scope – which should be included in any price comparison with, say, solar – and increasing use of petroleum.

Sure. Just as solar’s ability to deliver must be compared with nuclear.

And no, you can’t posit radical breakthroughs or point to “trends”; the latter is particularly pernicious because concrete, substantive reasons for these trends or why they will continue are seldom given.

50

ScentOfViolets 03.17.11 at 5:58 pm

You’ve offered a some numbers for one of the single-digit number of nuclear plant disasters that have happened in the past century, but the environmental cost of coal plants is at this point probably incalculcalable. Why the selective analysis?

Unless you have similar demands about other energy generation technologies?

Exactly. I meet very, very few rah rah nuclear advocates who have a scientific bent that are other than guarded in their endorsement of this source of energy. They’ll freely admit that the nuclear option isn’t something they want, merely that it happens to currently be the best among a number of alternatives. Press them, and they’ll say that they’d prefer something like solar power satellites, or a physics breakthrough like really good batteries or room-temperature superconductors, or monopole-powered baryon annihilation, or something even more exotic.

But those alternatives, unfortunately, are not what we have to work with :-(

51

Tim Worstall 03.17.11 at 6:17 pm

@45 and @46. My remark was aimed purely at the comment “A few days without electricity or control systems and you have a billion dollar loss”.

Yes, a few days of that and you’ve got a billion dollar plant that you cannot use again. I wasn’t addressing at all the hazards of widescale radiation etc. Purely that just because one of the largest earthquakes ever plus one of the largest tsunamis ever ruins a power plant isn’t a good argument against nuclear.

Also, re zirconium rods catching on fire. There’s been a few posts around the web that say this and most seem to end up having been influenced by a professor of journalism. He’s been saying that Zr explodes/burst into flames at 2,000 oF.

To be charitable about him, he’s got himself confused between the behaviour of Zr powder (which is indeed pyrophoric, as is Al powder, as is flour) and solid pieces of Zr or Zr tubing. Which doesn’t even melt until 3,400 oC, let alone burst into flames.

Water plus hot Zr does lead to free H2, which is very much a problem, but it isn’t that the Zr itself suddenly bursts into flames.

52

Farren Hayden 03.17.11 at 6:26 pm

@ScentOfViolets I can only echo your sentiments, being similar to my own. I’m not an academic, but have friends who turned down job offers at CERN and Brown to teach physics at local (South African) universities, and my hold similarly qualified views.

In contrast, my experience of anti-nuclear advocacy is a mixed bag, with most of the contents being unconvincing, far too shrill and unwilling to parse nuclear power generation in context.

A particularly irritating incident which turned me against vocal anti-nuclear advocates Earthlife Africa was one in which they whipped up a short-term media frenzy by claiming that the Pelindaba facility in the north of SA had unshielded nuclear waster lying about.

Their claims were broadcasted without any investigation by them (usually) quality press and the subsequent revelation that the so-called waste was in fact harmless isotopes deliberately exposed for medical instrument calibration on private land was largely ignored by the press.

53

Farren Hayden 03.17.11 at 6:29 pm

Damn the inability to edit comments. “Them (usually) quality press” should read THE (usually) quality press” and “waster” should be “waste”. Also, slightly drunk (reads comment carefully to ensure no ironic spelling errors)

54

Farren Hayden 03.17.11 at 6:29 pm

Also, “my I hold similar views” should be “I hold”. Dammit.

55

mclaren 03.17.11 at 6:38 pm

What will Americans do when oil hits $175 per barrel, as it must eventually? How about $300 per barrel? How about $500 per barrel? How about $1000 per barrel?

The supply of oil and natural gas is not limitless. At some point it will run out. The fantasy that America’s entire energy infrastructure can be replaced with wind power or solar power represents a delusion so absurd it requires little discussion. Because wind blow sintermittantly, storing power and preventing surges and blackouts in a widespread wind power network is not currently technologically feasible. The cost and rare earth elements (such as indium) required for efficient solar cells present such problems that if we were to try to carpet enough of the American Southwest with solar cells to replace our current coal/nuclear electric generating capability, we would require more than the known reserves of indium on earth.

Nuclear power remains the only viable alternative to coal and oil power generation. When oil runs out, the American public will have a simple choice: accept nuclear power, or freeze in the dark.

56

Omega Centauri 03.17.11 at 6:42 pm

Tim:
It shouldn’t be about a crash program to simply install in massive scale whatever we have today, or instead to simply research ways to make the stuff better. A good part of the needed improvements will come about via economies of scale, and moving up the learning curves. The key is for the renewable technologies to grow at a sustainable pace, that supports innovation. A massive program that decalres “we will buy anything you can produce at any cost” wouldn’t deliver that for sure. But, defunding of supports won’t either. This is more a case of slow an steady (or more realistically, medium speed) wins the race.

I always have a problem with the “can’t support nuclear until you have a longterm solution to the waste issue”. Seems to me the waste issue is almost entirely political, and the people making the above argument are frequently the ones determined to make any long term waste proposal politically impossible.

There was some confusion above about spent fuel pools, and reprocessing. The hotter rods in pools are not candidates for reprocessing. Until they have had time to cool off to a safer level. So reprocessing is important for the longterm waste as well as the fuel supply issues, but it not an answer to the problem of spent fuel pools needing to be continuously supplied with water. Fukushima shows that having the pools in the same structure as the reactor implies that there exists a failure mechanism whereby the pools become inaccessible. The problem is not that these fuel rods will melt, but that the zirconium seal will deteriorate, and hence the containment of the fission products contained within fails.

57

chris 03.17.11 at 6:42 pm

That’s not a problem solvable just by better designs, because there will always be a moment when tight budgets hit safety norms. And it will always be tempting to consider the high norms you established a bit outlandish later, when they require you close down things.

ISTM that at a sufficiently high level of generality this also describes Challenger, and the Ford Pinto, and thalidomide… and of course Deepwater Horizon. If you’re going to shun all technology that can be screwed up by short-sighted humans, then that’s pretty much everything above the pointy-stick level.

The profitability of the investment in Three Mile Island is a settled question.

Isn’t this reverse cherry picking? Lots of plants live out their entire design lifespan without incident. Comparing “hazards posed by 1 in 1000 nuclear plants after magnitude 9 earthquake + tsunami” (or whatever happened at 3MI) to “hazards posed by 1 in 1 coal plants on days that end in y” and concluding that the nukes are just too dangerous may seem tempting at the moment, but it’s a fundamentally misleading comparison.

Averaging over disastrous and non-disastrous outcomes to produce expected cost or danger per GWh (or something like that) seems a more respectable methodology, albeit tedious.

58

Farren Hayden 03.17.11 at 6:48 pm

@mclaren

Apparently the cost of conerting to green energy sources is enormous for Germany. Planned expansion of wave energy generators is approximately 75 BILLION euros.

Then of course there’s the problem of output. All green technologies require expensive infrastructure to manage variable output. Coal can be varied by need, (fission) nuclear (AFAIK) operate at max output all the time. In contrast variable output requires expensive infrastructure to manage.

Reduced to a personal analogy (and echoing earlier speculation about photovoltaic installation costs), if you’re earning a german middle-manager’s salary, do you buy the car with a signiicant environmental impact or the car with no significant environmental impact that costs 100% as much? Frequently, the agents or atoms of the economy don’t have any real choice.

59

Farren Hayden 03.17.11 at 6:49 pm

Darn the inability to edit comments. Darn it to HECK (Writes email reminding self not to post drunk). Forgive spelling errors, again.

60

Anderson 03.17.11 at 7:06 pm

Each of these sites suffered catastrophic destruction, nullifying their economic value and threatening or delivering dangerous releases of radioactivity.

Comparing TMI to Chernobyl is kinda like this comparison.

61

Substance McGravitas 03.17.11 at 7:21 pm

I’m not arguing about the worth of Three Mile Island, but the way you phrased it made it look like it was destroyed in the same sense as the other two plants and it isn’t.

Let me correct myself as well: the Chernobyl plant was not destroyed and reactors continued to operate until at least 1999.

62

Norwegian Guy 03.17.11 at 8:10 pm

“To all the people who discussed “storage” of spent fuel: That’s precisely the problem. We should be reprocessing this fuel and reusing it, not foolishly trying to sequester it for millennia.”

I get the impression that nuclear reprocessing plants are often more controversial than nuclear power plants. For instance, the British processing plant at Sellafield is a much larger concern in Norway than say, the much closer nuclear power plants in Sweden. The danger is not meltdowns etc., but waste leaking into the sea, that will be carried by the ocean currents to other countries. I believe there are concerns about the plant in Ireland as well.

63

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.17.11 at 8:19 pm

What about those Russian floating nuclear power stations? Is that going to be safer than coal too?

64

Straightwood 03.17.11 at 8:30 pm

One reason nuclear plants are causing so much trouble is that the incentives for the people building and advocating them are short-term, but the risks associated with them are long-term. Unfortunately, our economic and cultural systems do not rationally avoid catastrophic long-term risk.

A large fraction of humanity will take immediate substantial personal gain in return for inflicting possible widespread future harm. The more dangerous the technology, the more deadly this bargain becomes.

The importance of nuclear “incidents” is that they provide the only powerful counter-force to the trend toward profitable but irresponsible piling on of future risk. My question to nuclear power advocates is this:

How big does a nuclear disaster have to be to change your mind about the desirability of nuclear power?

65

Ryan 03.17.11 at 8:42 pm

While it would be wonderful to be able to rely solely on solar, wind wave power, we’re pretty much never going to be at that stage without amazing advances in power storage technologies. All of these sources of energy are highly variable, and the power grid is designed to deal with relatively constant energy loads. Coal can do that, but at very high, predictable, environmental and human costs. Google “coal mining casualties” – it’s a pretty substantial number, and that is before health problems brought on by breathing dirty air, and drinking unclean water. And even that doesn’t factor in the increasing effects of global climate change, most of which are unfriendly to human well-being. We can (hopefully) all agree that the status quo is coal power, and that it would be good to shift away from this. What other sources of energy can we draw from, that have some ability to provide constant rates of power? One is geothermal, but this is a power source that only works in some areas. Another is gas-fired plants, but these have a number of problems in common with coal. After those, our options get pretty limited pretty fast. In a few locations, winds are steady enough to provide baseload power, but these locations are not geographically distributed such that the wind is where the people are. Nuclear is a realistic option here. I am happy to agree that boiling water reactors (which were largely designed over 40 years ago) have a number of problems. However, modern reactor design resolves pretty much all of these concerns. Active safety systems have given way to passive safety systems. You can literally unplug everything, screw up as much as possible, and core temperatures never reach unsafe levels. Pebble Bed Reactors are a very large improvement over boiling water reactors – helium is used as the coolant, so there is never a phase transition problem. Even better still are the “battery” designs seen with Toshiba’s 4S (Super Safe Small and Simple) reactor design. They are pretty much factory-assembled batteries that get installed somewhere, then taken back after 20 years for a fuel change. Finally, for those concerned about waste, much of that can be used as fuel in Traveling Wave Reactors, which can use depleted uranium and other lower-grade fuels so long as a seed of higher-grade fuel is used to start the reactor. These can be designed as 100-year batteries, working off the waste that already exists. Fuels don’t need to be changed out in the meantime. These designs are cooled with liquid sodium or liquid lead – if something goes wrong, the reactor cores are already coated in protective materials.

I’d personally be fine having one of these in my town. I’d much prefer it to a coal or gas-fired plant being anywhere in the vicinity. Of course, let’s load up on solar and wind and wave and geothermal power. I’m all for using those as much as is feasibly possible. But let’s first focus on preventing new coal plants from being built, and existing plants from continuing to operate, given their amazingly high (and predictable) human and environmental costs, rather than focusing on the comparatively small risk of a nuclear disaster. Three Mile Island put out less radiation than the continued operation of a huge coal-burning power plant. Coal plants aren’t regulated on the amount of radioactive materials they put out, and as such, spew out far more than nuclear plants are allowed to.

66

Doctor Memory 03.17.11 at 8:46 pm

Straightwood@64: “more than 1/1000th as bad as the harm of continuing to rely on fossil fuels” seems like an entirely reasonable answer to me. I mean, you are concerned about widespread future harm, right?

67

SamChevre 03.17.11 at 8:49 pm

How big does a nuclear disaster have to be to change your mind about the desirability of nuclear power?

I’ve answered this elsewhere but not here.

To have a chance of changing my mind, a nuclear disaster would have to make nuclear power as bad as coal, functioning coal plant for failed nuclear plant, on a non-CO2 basis. To certainly change my mind, it would have to a make nuclear power as bad as coal for the average plant, on a CO2 included basis. (Recall that coal-fired power plants put out significant quantities of radiation, along with heavy metals, and that coal minig is not particularly environmentally friendly.)

68

JM 03.17.11 at 8:56 pm

How big does a nuclear disaster have to be to change your mind about the desirability of nuclear power?

An earthquake and tsunami are nuclear disasters? Was the Deepwater Horizon a natural disaster?

I think the specter of The Bomb colors many folks’ perception of the issue. If there were a commercially-viable way to generate electricity that was not attended by planet-wide and potentially existential threats to our species, we wouldn’t be here arguing right now. Our options suck. All of them.

69

Matt 03.17.11 at 9:37 pm

I think nuclear power is the best (or least bad) option for a lot of energy needs now and in the foreseeable future. To change my support at least one of three things would be needed:

1) Nuclear proves a lot more dangerous. This would mean, for example, excess human morbidity and mortality per terawatt hour at least equal to those expected from natural gas power plants. In the strong case this means it needs to be as bad as coal plants, which are much worse even than gas.

2) Non-fossil, non-nuclear energy demonstrates ability to displace coal. X gigawatts of new solar/wind/wave generating capacity come along and replace Y gigawatts of coal capacity, where X is some small multiple of Y. This requires affordable large scale energy storage as well as affordable generation capacity. Solar panels without backing storage cannot retire coal plants even if they’re very efficient and very inexpensive.

3) The scale of industrial human civilization declines dramatically, so our power choices don’t affect the world and the future very much. If the USA had only 30 million people they could all burn coal and the nation would still achieve post-Kyoto emissions targets. The dramatic post-Soviet decline of industry, prosperity, population, and GHG emissions shows how this could happen in a small way. It also shows that only misanthropes can embrace it as a solution.

70

Omega Centauri 03.17.11 at 9:42 pm

How big does a nuclear disaster have to be to change your mind about the desirability of nuclear power?
I have a small discount rate. AGW will be causing harm to humans for at least a thousand years, any nuclear accidents will cause relatively shortlived harm. The nuclear risks are medium term (0 to 20 years) say, the fossil fueled risks go on a long longer than that.

But it is highly probable, that our medium term energy prospects has now gotten a lot worse. We are less likely to build as many (or any) new nukes, and more likely to close existing ones earlier. If the latter happens quickly enough we could experience considerable economic hurt from it.

71

Tim Wilkinson 03.17.11 at 10:03 pm

1. The big thing about this was not that the accident happened, but how much cluelessness there evidently is about how to deal with it (all the nuclear experts of course constantly giving optimistic prognoses, each one accepted by the media until it has to be abandoned in the face of too-obstrusive reality, at which point the same people are asked for a revised version of nothing-to-see-here.

2. There seems to be a lot of talk about how little harm has been caused by this/is generally caused by such events. Unless one is bending over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt (and indeed to preserve such doubt) this has the apprearance of bullshit. Have any studies been done about the impact of Chernobyl? Is there any reason to think they have assessed the past and future impact correctly? Or do we use as data the number of people who have successfully sued (fucking difficult to establish at the best of times, still more so when you are up against serious legal firepower) or similar? This is classic deniability territory, and without a huge effort with some serious authority behind it, this info is never going to be adequately assessed – and I would strongly suspect that official info will be heavily biased in favour of nukes.

72

PHB 03.17.11 at 10:25 pm

@ JohnB 3

Sorry, you’re claiming that the renaissance funding was going to pay for a new build of GE mk1 BWR designs? I’m, erm, sceptical.

All the new plants to be built are lightwater designs that have the same fundamental design flaw of generating many MW of heat energy years after being ‘shut down’. Such designs are not failsafe by any meaningful definition of the term. The ability to SCRAM the reactor and shut down the induced fission by inserting the control rods only reduces power output to 5% of the maximum load. It does not make it safe. A reactor that will melt down unless fed 60 gallons of water a minute is not failsafe.

The main difference between the mk 1 design of the boiling water reactor is that the reactor containment vessel is defective as was reported by Sandia Labs in 2006. The later designs are not defective in that respect but they are still defective and unsafe.

There are modern designs that have passive safety. For example the Pebble Bed design. Similar claims are made for the molten salt design though I have not looked at that personally.

Abundant evidence demonstrates that we were lied to when we were told that the mk1 boiling water design was safe. Why are we to believe the same people and the same company when they assure us that they have got it right this time round?

73

ScentOfViolets 03.17.11 at 10:36 pm

How big does a nuclear disaster have to be to change your mind about the desirability of nuclear power?

Well, let’s look at this WHO fact sheet for a rough cut:

Q2: How bad is air pollution?

Air pollution is a major environmental health problem affecting everyone. Whether in Manila, Sao Paolo or London, air pollution is a problem from exhaust fumes from cars, domestic combustion or factory smoke. Worldwide it is estimated that 2 million people –more than half of them in developing countries — die every year from air pollution.

World-wide there are risks to health from exposure to particulate matter (PM) and Ozone (O3) in many cities of developed and developing countries alike.

You can quibble with the numbers all you like, but unless you’re stone anti-nuke, you’d probably agree that at least 100,000 people die every year from air pollution alone. That does not take into account global warming or any other secondary effects, btw.

So if nuclear energy is responsible for 10,000 fatalities a year (all other things being equal of course, such as the proportion of people relying on nuclear energy, say, or the smoothed average over several years), I’d hazard that it’s a clear win over conventional carbon-based fuels. If you disagree with the logic, I’d be interested in hearing your arguments to the contrary.

74

PHB 03.17.11 at 10:46 pm

@JM 03.17.11 at 1:51 pm

I sympathize with your position, but arguing this way will get you ignored by anyone who knows anything about the problem

JM, let me put this to you gently. Do you happen to have a degree in nuclear physics? Have you spent any time working in the field? Because I have.

Recourse to presumed authority is never a pretty mode of argument. In this case what is at issue is the credibility of ‘experts’ who have been assuring us that US nuclear power is ‘safe’ to a risk of accident of less than a million to one. Now that we have two plants and six reactors on the brink of if not undergoing meltdown, one does not need a degree in nuclear physics to see that their credibility is nil. But as I mentioned before, I do happen to have one anyway.

I do believe that it is possible to have safe nuclear power. What I have no confidence in is the people running the industry. They have been lying about the safety of their plants for decades and the proof of that fact is seen in Japan.

What makes me even less willing to trust the nuclear industry is the way they resort to the mode of argument you show here. Essentially what you are saying is that the only people arguing against nuclear power do so out of ignorance. Yet we have six US designed reactors that are only being kept from a complete meltdown by plant operators taking doses of radiation that is almost certain to kill half of them within the year.

You do not need a degree in nuclear physics to see that we have been lied to here and that we cannot therefore trust US nuclear power plant designs to be safe.

The boiling water design is not failsafe. None of the US designs are failsafe.

75

Straightwood 03.17.11 at 10:51 pm

If you disagree with the logic, I’d be interested in hearing your arguments to the contrary.

Taleb’s book, “The Black Swan,” is all about refuting your argument. You are comparing the apples of very tractable measurements of conventional power source danger with the oranges of high-risk nuclear alternatives. The explosion of a single reactor near a densely populated Chinese city could upset your calculus with a single data point, but because it hasn’t happened yet, you calmly calculate based on past accident history. There are no “experts” on the future of nuclear catastrophe, and thus no expert calculations are possible.

76

Chrisb 03.17.11 at 10:56 pm

One obvious source of increased costs for future nuclear power plants is that no future plants are going to be able to get away with the eight-hour battery operation life that was apparently available at Fukashima. No approval process is going to be able to get away with under two weeks. Can anyone on-thread say (a) whether this would be (would have been) feasible, and (b) what effect it would have on construction/running costs?

77

Matt 03.17.11 at 11:05 pm

Yes, Chernobyl has been studied. There is considerable variation in estimates for long term mortality. The World Health Organization estimates 4000-9000 excess deaths eventually attributable to Chernobyl (fewer than 50 directly attributed to Chernobyl were known as of 2004). Greenpeace estimates about 90000 excess deaths eventually attributable to Chernobyl. I know a bit about health physics, but not enough about methodology for these sorts of epidemiological studies to see if WHO or Greenpeace did anything ridiculous to arrive at their vastly different numbers.

If Greenpeace’s much higher number is more correct, that still is not proof that nuclear is worse than the fossil fuel status quo. Greenpeace also reports that particulate air pollution from American fossil power plants alone kill about 30000 people per year. The normal operation of American fossil fuel power plants is equivalent to multiple Chernobyls per decade. So we’re back to the same choice in many places: nuclear power or something worse. Hydroelectric and geothermal power are good substitutes for both fossil and nuclear energy where they’re available, but that excludes much of the world.

78

Lemuel Pitkin 03.17.11 at 11:12 pm

How big does a nuclear disaster have to be to change your mind about the desirability of nuclear power?

Speaking just for myself, this disaster has definitely changed my mind about the desirablity of nuclear power. Specifically, it’s made me think it’s more desirable.

This has been a worst-case scenario. And it’s absolutely clear that the damage caused is trivial compared with what we are facing from climate change. I’m fairly confident that if you could calculate the loss of life attributable to the carbon emissions from coal plants equivalent in power output to Fukushima, they’d exceed it by an order of magnitude. Events in Japan right now are showing as clearly as possible how much more destructive extreme weather events are than nuclear disasters, if we were just paying attention.

79

PHB 03.17.11 at 11:16 pm

@JM 19

But worst of all, Chernobyl had a graphite core, which is fine unless it’s exposed to air when red-hot, at which point it will burn. The Fukushima reactors have no equivalent structure. Fukushima can release radioactive steam. Chernobyl rained 1200 tons of radioactive graphite on Europe, mainly Belarus.

There are pros and cons to a graphite core.

The major advantage is that it permits a design that does in fact shut down when the control rods are dropped.

By the time the Chernobyl reactor was on fire it was already in meltdown.

As far as safety is concerned, the UK nuclear power industry record is not terrific but they have avoided an incident on the Three Mile Island level of severity, let alone have plants approaching catastrophic failure.

Like the Chernobyl reactors, the original UK magnox reactors did not have containment vessels. The argument against a containment vessel is that any vessel will fail if it gets hot enough and the higher the pressure the vessel is under when it fails, the worse the result.

At least two of the Japanese containment vessels have failed at this point.

I would not regard either design as being acceptable. But the run-on effect of the light water moderator designs is worse than the risk of a graphite moderator catching fire in my view. It is easy enough to suppress a fire by suppressing the oxygen flow.

Now of course someone is going to post saying my BNFL source is lying and the graphite moderator has the same run on effect. Regardless, I do not regard either design as acceptably safe.

80

PHB 03.17.11 at 11:29 pm

@ChrisB 75

The cost of additional batteries for two weeks is relatively trivial. As it happens there was already a program in place looking at that issue for other reasons.

What is going to be a bigger impact on the economics is the rapid reduction in the cost of wind power and the availability of good low power light bulbs as Japan is forced to embark on a crash program to deal with the loss of 10% of their already stretched generating capacity.

It is pretty clear to me that LEDs could be used to make much more attractive lighting fixtures than are available on the market today. The key in my view is to stop thinking about them as ‘bulbs’ and instead think about them as being a part of the fixture itself.

Japan has the technology, the capital resources and the need to move away from incandescent bulbs. If they adopted it as a national priority they could make a transition in maybe three years. Should they do that the same technology will flood into the US and European markets, not to mention China.

81

adam@nope.com 03.18.11 at 1:26 am

@Straightwood

The problem with your “black swan” argument is that it could be used to justify anything. For example, just as it was extremely unlikely the reactors would be subjected to 5th largest recorded earthquake in history and subsequent 10m tsunami, it was extremely unlikely that Pakistani scientists were helping al-Qaeda develop nukes. But under a “Black Swan” argument similar to yours, the Bush administration decided to treat that possibility as a certainty because of the potential consequences of such a collaboration. Was that really a good idea?

82

adam@nope.com 03.18.11 at 1:31 am

@PHB

You say have a degree in nuclear physics and you worked in the field. Okay – what did you work on?

May I assess you credibility by your statement that 1/2 of the workers will be dead in a year? The highest estimate of exposure I’ve heard so far is 106 millirem. Please inform me – is that dose sufficient to kill half of those exposed in a year?

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PHB 03.18.11 at 2:11 am

@ Adam

Somehow I get the feeling that the only ‘expert’ you are going to accept is someone who tells you what you want to hear. I might be wrong, but I am pretty sure I am not.

I only brought the issue up at all because JB made a silly claim that the only reason someone might disagree with him was ignorance.

You folk are like those sad cases who used to stand outside railway stations selling copies of the Socialist Workers who lived in the unshakeable belief that every problem of modern society had been solved by a guy who died before the internal combustion engine, electricity or powered flight became viable technologies. They always had an answer for why the atrocities committed by Stalin were to be ignored, the atrocities of Mao were to be ignored, the atrocities of Castro and Ceausescu and so on and so on.

The assertion that half the workers will be dead in a year is based on the fact that the US state dept has already let slip that it is a suicide mission and the fact that the majority of the staff were sent home despite the real risk of a meltdown and the fact that the Japanese government itself is complaining of being lied to.

We know that the plant is on the verge of meltdown. We know that the Japanese military can’t get close enough because of the radiation levels. Let me repeat that the Japanese military won’t go closer with the plant on the brink of meltdown.

Now given what we know about Japanese culture, do you really think it is very likely that they would be keeping the troops back if the radiation level was at anything less than suicide mission levels? Use some common sense.

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Straightwood 03.18.11 at 2:21 am

The problem with your “black swan” argument is that it could be used to justify anything.

Not so. There is a clear difference in the probabalities associated with accidents at conventional thermal power plants and accidents at nuclear power plants. Even the most severe accident at a coal, oil, or gas-fueled power plant cannot endanger millions of people downwind. At this moment, nobody knows the ultimate severity of the accident at Fukushima, because we are in uncharted territory. Three Mile Island was caused by an instrumentation failure; Chernobyl by an out-of-control experiment; and Fukushima by a Tsunami. If you can build a valid statistical model from these events, you are truly a magician.

In the “Black Swan,” Taleb excoriates financial “experts” who represented the behavior of complex and unstable derivatives as safe investments with tractable risk characteristics. He would make similar criticisms of those who claim to predict the likelihood and severity of nuclear accidents and calculate the relative benefits of nuclear power generation vs. conventional power plants.

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adam@nope.com 03.18.11 at 2:38 am

@PHB

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but will a dose of 100 milirem kill 50% of those exposed within a year or not?

@Straightwood

Please clarify. Is your only criteria for evaluating whether or not to take an action the magnitude of the worst conceiveable consequence, regardless of the probability of that consequence? If so, how is this any different that the 1% doctrine advocated by Cheney et. al?

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ScentOfViolets 03.18.11 at 2:44 am

If you disagree with the logic, I’d be interested in hearing your arguments to the contrary.

Taleb’s book, “The Black Swan,” is all about refuting your argument. You are comparing the apples of very tractable measurements of conventional power source danger with the oranges of high-risk nuclear alternatives. The explosion of a single reactor near a densely populated Chinese city could upset your calculus with a single data point, but because it hasn’t happened yet, you calmly calculate based on past accident history. There are no “experts” on the future of nuclear catastrophe, and thus no expert calculations are possible.

Leaving aside the diciness of relying on Taleb, this comment makes no sense. You’re either saying that you can’t compare airline safety with car safety because even though the overall death rate per passenger-mile is lower for air travel, when accidents happen they cause more deaths (which just seems to be plain innumerate.)

Or you’re not questioning the logic so much as you are denying the premise . . . something entirely different.

And if you’re saying that we don’t know how bad a singular event can get, well, that “black swan” argument applies to just about everything else. If you allow that assumption, Cheney’s one percent doctrine makes perfect sense. If you allow that assumption, we should stop the burning of all fossil fuels tomorrow. Who knows, maybe the option is either that or rise in temperature to 90 degrees celsius or higher over most of the globe.

Iow, your black swan is nothing more than Pascal’s Wager in a modern guise.

Care to clarify what you meant then, or perhaps abandon that line of thought and go with another objection?

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ScentOfViolets 03.18.11 at 2:50 am

PHB @ 74:

You presume too much. He did not say anything about needing to be an expert. In fact, you’re the one who seems to be falling back on creds.

Which is odd, given that later on you assert that you don’t need any special expertise, you just need to be moderately informed. And that is exactly what he said.

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PHB 03.18.11 at 2:52 am

@Straightwood 84

The claim that Chernobyl failed due to an ‘experiment’ seems to be nuclear industry spin rather than reality.

According to other sources the tests being performed were rather more routine and well within the design capacity of the plant. The cause of the meltdown was not operating the plant outside its design capacity, it was an intrinsic design flaw in the plant itself.

The plant had a region of positive feedback that had not been predicted during the simulations. This is hardly surprising since the computing power to do proper 3D simulations of the reactor bed did not exist at the time the plant was designed. The standard approach used in the East and the West was to run 2D simulations and extrapolate to 3D.

Some of the UK Magnox reactors were shut down shortly after the simulation studies started to identify the cause. I tend to suspect there was a connection.

Now some might say that I don’t have the expertise to properly evaluate the situation etc. and they are probably right. But the situation is not one where I have to prove nuclear power is unsafe. The tsunami has already done that.

The observation I make is simply this: The onus is on the nuclear industry to prove that it deserves yet another chance, they have the entire burden of proof.

For years nuclear power promoters have claimed that the only reason someone might mistrust nuclear power is ignorance, stupidity or irrational fear, we see that mode of argument being applied in this thread.

I do not claim to be an expert on nuclear power but I do claim that I have more than a sufficient degree of knowledge and relevant expertise to back the statements that I have made.

Seriously, we are meant to believe someone because their cousin knew someone who might have gone to CERN but didn’t?

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ScentOfViolets 03.18.11 at 2:56 am

Adam @ 85:

You’re thinking straight on both counts. Those aren’t tough questions to answer, and there is no conceivable reason to avoid answering them. I see also that PHB has also conflated several things about what “the experts” have said to come up with the conclusion that they’re all liars and that Straightwood is being rather selective as to what he allows is a “black swan”.

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Darius Jedburgh 03.18.11 at 2:59 am

Lots of crackpot realism in this thread. Just remember that from the crooked fuel-rod of technocracy, no safe pile was ever made.
http://blogs.knoxnews.com/munger/2011/03/ex-sandia-engineer-talks-about.html

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ScentOfViolets 03.18.11 at 3:00 am

he observation I make is simply this: The onus is on the nuclear industry to prove that it deserves yet another chance, they have the entire burden of proof.

The problem here is that they don’t need another chance. Their record is better than the alternative just the way it stands now, Chernobyl and all.

So it strikes me that the onus is on you to prove that nuclear power is more dangerous than the alternative, despite the record which says that this Just Ain’t So.

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derrida derider 03.18.11 at 3:04 am

There’s no doubt the nuclear renaissance is killed stone dead by these events, at least in democratic countries. Whether it SHOULD be dead is another question.

John is correct that nuclear power is held to far higher safety standards than other toxic industries, and recent events have emphasised that (what about the indirect deaths from the oil refinery fire toxic smoke, or the massive chemical pollution that must occur when a tsunami washes away chemical plants all up and down that coast?). However he is also correct that, absent a hefty carbon price, the renaissance never made a lot of economic sense anyway.

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PHB 03.18.11 at 3:07 am

@Scentoff

No, JB stated that people might think I was ignorant if I made a statement that he disagreed with.

Its the type of argument the nuclear power industry has used for years, they can’t put up a case so they try to bully and intimidate.

As it happens it turns out that his source was some US nuclear power corporation propaganda which in my view looks rather foolish given that the design features he was praising happen to be the very features that are threatening to turn this particular situation into a catastrophe.

Sandia labs produced a 2006 report with simulation studies that give a 42% probability of a rupture of the containment vessel in the case that the rods are fully uncovered. So far two vessels have ruptured.

The vessel is producing 4MW of heat. Therefore it will continue to heat up until the reactor vessel itself is at a temperature where it will dissipate 4MW of heat. Thats fairly basic physics. I don’t have the math to tell you what that temperature would be but I am pretty sure that it is way beyond the point where there is a catastrophic failure of some sort. My guess would be somewhere above 6000 degrees C.

Either they get the pumps working again soon or we are facing a Chernobyl.

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Landru 03.18.11 at 3:24 am

PHB, your understanding as you describe it here is an interesting cheese of substance and holes, which makes me wonder what you actually learned in getting your degree in nuclear physics. I will go into a bit of detail here, which this thread could certainly use. (And, in case it matters to you or anyone else, I do have a PhD in nuclear physics; and while I’m not an engineer I have studied reactor physics and have written a refereed paper on reactor design. Or, as the leader of Plato’s Stepchildren put it, “Not twice mine.”)

When you write

“a graphite core. … The major advantage is that it permits a design that does in fact shut down when the control rods are dropped.”

I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “shut down,” but I can’t see a definition under which this passage makes any sense.

Fission power basics: There are two heat sources in any running atomic pile, (A) the energy released from neutron-induced fission of a heavy-metal nucleus, and (B) the energy released by stand-alone decays of radioactive elements, particularly the light and middle-weight nuclear isotopes which are produced in these fissions (aka “fission products”). Source (A) is sustained by the neutron chain reaction, and can be stopped by changing the geometry of the pile, in particular by adding neutron absorptive materials (“control rods”). Source (B) is non-negotiable, and cannot be meaningfully stopped or reduced by any outside intervention; that energy will be liberated as heat, somewhere, on a schedule that depends only on the abundances and lifetimes of the isotopes that are present.

Given this very basic physics, I don’t know what you mean by “a design that…does shut down” in any way that’s relevant to the design involving graphite. Source (A), the fission chain reaction, can be stopped (ie reduced by many orders of magnitude in power, ie”shut down”) in any practical reactor, typically by inserting neutron-absorbing control rods; this goes for pressurized light-water reactors, heavy-water-moderated reactors, graphite-moderated reactors, molten-salt reactors, etc. Being able to shut down the fission chain reaction (A) has nothing to specifically with the presence or absence of graphite or water; it’s a feature of all power reactors.

It’s true that, if the chain reaction is only barely stopped by control rods then changes in conditions can lead to the chain reaction re-starting. For example, as a moderator cools the neutrons that percolate through it will, on average, slow down and become more effective at inducing fission; this effect is one way to produce a “pulsed reactor,” a well-known research device. And there are other mechanisms that may follow from geometry changes. But these are all usually marginal effects; inserting enough control rods will always shut down the chain reaction definitively, and that statement has nothing to do with water vs graphite vs other.

On the other side, as described above no reactor can “shut down” power source (B), the decay heat from radioisotopes; and this, too, is regardless of whether the reactor uses graphite or water, or anything else, for moderation or for cooling. So there’s no possible link between this meaning of “shut down” and graphite, either. And so, reading passages like this one really make me doubt that you have firm grasp on what you want to talk about. Similarly, when you write

“the run-on effect of the light water moderator designs is worse than the risk of a graphite moderator catching fire”

I can’t make sense of the phrase “run-on effect,” and you certainly haven’t defined it in any intelligible way. I could go on. But reading your comments here, overall it sounds like you’ve picked up some ideas and nomenclature second-hand from the industry and are then extrapolating to look like an expert in order to boost your overall agenda.

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Omega Centauri 03.18.11 at 3:44 am

I have to say I am pretty flabergasted by this accident. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize that having the backup power within reach of a tsunami, means the odds of losing both backup power -AND the means to deal with the issue, by for instance bringing in undamaged equipment are coincident. Then we have the steam cum hydrogen explosions. Quite predicatable in the case of the core being partially or fully uncovered. But no provision was (apparently) made to allow this stuff to be bleed off safely (i.e. burn it as it is bleed off, as they do in chemical plants)! Then the spent fuel pools, being inaccesible in the case of a problem with the core! Shouldn’t it have obvious that a means to provide water to them without having to have personel enter the structure was necessary? It just feels like a string of fairly easy to think of things just were not done. That and TEPCO seems to try to muddle through with ineffectual means, rather than swallowing their pride and calling in the big boys. Now it may be too late.

PHB, wind and conservation are indeed great things, that I do hope come out of this. They are cheaper per KWhr than nuclear. But, they are not a substitute, society still needs a certain fraction of practically quaranteed baseline power. So nuclear and variable-flow based renewables (such as wind and solar) cannot be directly compared on price, the quality of the product wrt. temporal variability doesn’t compare.

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Straightwood 03.18.11 at 3:46 am

Those who oppose the “Black Swan ” argument against nuclear power have the burden of proving that nuclear power risks are tractable and manageable. So far, the record of accidents is full of “unpredictable” conditions: a bad instrument at TMI; an unknown instability at Chernobyl; an improbable chain of equipment failures at Fukushima. This does not include the “near miss” incidents that have not received much publicity.

It is not a reasonable defense to say that every catastrophic failure of a nuclear power plant is a freakish event that could never be anticipated. To simply dismiss these disasters as outlying data points, and declare that nuclear power is “safe,” is absurd. If watching three Japanese reactors explode doesn’t alter the assumptions of the nuclear power advocates, we are dealing with ideologues, and not engineers.

How many more “improbable” and “unforeseen” nuclear disasters do we have to endure before the experts are humbled?

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ScentOfViolets 03.18.11 at 4:09 am

I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “shut down,” but I can’t see a definition under which this passage makes any sense.

Me too. Mathematician by way of physics, have several friends who actually work inside MU’s research reactor, been inside the building and observed day to day reactor operations eight or nine times over the last thirty years. It’s a corrupt little institution :-)

Fission power basics: There are two heat sources in any running atomic pile, (A) the energy released from neutron-induced fission of a heavy-metal nucleus, and (B) the energy released by stand-alone decays of radioactive elements, particularly the light and middle-weight nuclear isotopes which are produced in these fissions (aka “fission products”). Source (A) is sustained by the neutron chain reaction, and can be stopped by changing the geometry of the pile, in particular by adding neutron absorptive materials (“control rods”). Source (B) is non-negotiable, and cannot be meaningfully stopped or reduced by any outside intervention; that energy will be liberated as heat, somewhere, on a schedule that depends only on the abundances and lifetimes of the isotopes that are present.

I think this might indeed be the source of PHB’s confusion about what “the experts” say. He’s heard in one way or another assurances that the reactor will “shut down”, which probably means that various measures are in effect (some of them in the physical design itself) that ensure the reaction will indeed be damped. That does not mean that the radiation levels automatically go down to some safe level of course. But when he hears of radiation problems having nothing to do with the original claims, he concludes that “the experts” must have been lying.

Put this one down to miscommunication/misunderstanding. I’ve never understood why the subject of nuclear energy seems to be such a difficult one; I knew the operating principles and basic schematics no later than the sixth grade. The kids these days maybe :-)

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Ryan 03.18.11 at 4:10 am

@Straightwood: How many people died in the Three Mile Island? As far as I’m aware, it’s zero. The Kemeny Commission claims that there was no elevated cancer risk for the surrounding area, and maximum exposure levels were approximately equivalent to a chest X-Ray exam.

Now, how many people have died in coal mining accidents? A lot. How many people have died from health problems related to burning coal? A lot more. And this is when everything is going well. How much radiation does a large coal burning plant release every year? A lot more than a nuclear plant is allowed to.

Chernobyl is pretty much our worst-case scenario for nuclear power, and as Matt mentioned above, the US exposes itself to several Chernobyls a decade from the effects of coal power plants in terms of numbers of casualties. So I’d be much happier with the casualty rate from nuclear power than the one from coal power.

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ScentOfViolets 03.18.11 at 4:14 am

Those who oppose the “Black Swan ” argument against nuclear power have the burden of proving that nuclear power risks are tractable and manageable. So far, the record of accidents is full of “unpredictable” conditions: a bad instrument at TMI; an unknown instability at Chernobyl; an improbable chain of equipment failures at Fukushima.

You’re really not making any sense here. Seriously. Even after these accidents, nuclear energy is still safer than the conventional sorts; that’s just the track record.

Do you not realize what you are actually asking for? Or am I misunderstanding your argument? If I don’t, then I’m perfectly justified in firing off a back-at-ya by demanding proof from you that greenhouse emissions won’t raise average temperatures another 50 degrees Centigrade.

So where’s your proof that this black swan event won’t happen?

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Straightwood 03.18.11 at 4:18 am

Put this one down to miscommunication/misunderstanding.

No, put it down to deliberate suppression of unpleasant information by the industry. Until Fukushima blew up, there was no widespread public knowledge that cooling pools for spent fuel required active, electrically powered circulation of cooling water, and, absent this, would turn into dirty bombs within a few days. The public was encouraged to believe that the spent fuel was just sitting contentedly in large swimming pools. This kind of lying by omission speaks very poorly for the nuclear industry, and justifies intense skepticism regarding its future plans.

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ScentOfViolets 03.18.11 at 4:32 am

No, put it down to deliberate suppression of unpleasant information by the industry. Until Fukushima blew up, there was no widespread public knowledge that cooling pools for spent fuel required active, electrically powered circulation of cooling water, and, absent this, would turn into dirty bombs within a few days.

Uh, I gotta say, I knew this, and furthermore, I knew it before I left middle school. Really. Education in general and the public library in particular is your friend. I’m of those antediluvian generations where all this was on paper, which makes the public’s ignorance doubly damning. Hmmm . . . let me date myself further: Did anyone else grow up with Our Friend the Atom, either the book or the movie? Or read any of those “There’s Adventure in Rockets/Electronics/Atomic Energy etc.” by – of all people – Julian May?

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Straightwood 03.18.11 at 4:36 am

Even after these accidents, nuclear energy is still safer than the conventional sorts; that’s just the track record.

You don’t seem to grasp Taleb’s fundamental point, which is that there are crucial qualitative differences of risk associated with different phenomena. Calculating the risk of nuclear plant failure is not a tractable problem. Fukushima just tripled the number of catastrophically failed reactors in a single incident. Who can assure us that this is the last such disaster, or that worse failures will not follow?

Prior to the Wall Street meltdown, CDOs and other derivatives had an excellent “track record,” but their risk and instability were not understood. Despite numerous calls for caution, the “experts” declared these instruments to be safe. Taleb berates the arrogance of experts who repeatedly claim that they have statistical confidence in the incidence of phenomena that do not follow the declared statistical behavior. But the gullibility of the public succumbs to the experts every time.

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ScentOfViolets 03.18.11 at 4:39 am

Like I said, if that’s going to be your justification, then you need to prove to me that the continued emission of greenhouse gases won’t raise average temperatures by 50 degrees C or more.

So where’s your proof? You do realize the burden of proof is on you, right? By your very own reasoning.

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Straightwood 03.18.11 at 4:55 am

Like I said, if that’s going to be your justification, then you need to prove to me that the continued emission of greenhouse gases won’t raise average temperatures by 50 degrees C or more.

The case for AGW is based on scientific models. The warming theory deniers do attempt to undermine the models, but so far, the predictive models are holding up. The “improbable” failures of TMI, Chernobyl, and Fukushima are associated with known design flaws present in multiple operational reactors. These factors, and the associated incidents are not anomalies; they are evidence of a fundamental failure to measure risk properly. There have been no comparable events challenging AGW modelling.

The question nuclear power advocates must answer is how many disasters are they prepared to dismiss as irrelevant to their “safety” calculations?

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Jake 03.18.11 at 5:04 am

@Tim Wilkinson

“Have any studies been done about the impact of Chernobyl?”

Not a single one. No one has any idea what the impact of the Chernobyl accident was, it’s all just pure speculation.

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David 03.18.11 at 5:28 am

Well, this has been interesting and even informative. I think that PHB, on the whole, nails it best @ #74: “I do believe that it is possible to have safe nuclear power. What I have no confidence in is the people running the industry. They have been lying about the safety of their plants for decades and the proof of that fact is seen in Japan.”
Those of you who seem most annoyed by him and insistent that the main alternative, fossil fuels, are proven far more dangerous (a point I agree with) strike me as far to ready to dismiss that point and far too ready to downplay renewable alternatives and conservation. None of which, by the way, have ever received anywhere near the subsidies and leeway that the nuclear industry has.

I’m very impressed that Scent of Violets has for some decades been more cognizant of design flaws, and comfortable with them, than probably 99% of the population.

The political reality is that it is far more likely that you can convince an agnostic like myself, or an outright opponent, that it is in our best interests to build nuclear (while investing at the same time in the previously mentioned alternatives) than it will be to convince Republicans and industry to actually fund the robust safe designs. And unless that happens, John Quiggens contention is probably correct.

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Landru 03.18.11 at 5:37 am

Straightwood (better than the bent kind?): ” cooling pools for spent fuel required active, electrically powered circulation of cooling water, and, absent this, would turn into dirty bombs within a few days.”

I’m not sure how well-founded this statement is in general; I think it really depends on how recently the fuel was active, and at what power level, and how densely the fuel is packed in the water. For sufficiently low levels of residual heating power the uncirculated pool may take weeks or months to boil off/evaporate; and even then the fuel forms may remain at a low enough temperature not to disassemble or outgas (at whatever level you insist on) simply from natural air convection cooling. There have been reasonable plans for passive convective air cooling of older fuel vitrified in glass forms, for example.

By the same token, though, there almost certainly are arrangements for which this statement is true. And the key word here is “days”, as in disaster will strike after the pool has remained unpowered and uncirculated pool for a certain number of days (presumably less than 7, or else the natural unit would be weeks). Assuming you find this condition unacceptable, then it brings front and center the question: what accident/occurrence do you want engineers to design against?

Would cooling pools be acceptable if they could prevent disaster with circulating power cut off for a week? a month? a year? Would designing against a nearby earthquake of magnitude 9 be enough? Why not insist on 10? or 11? There was a recent post at http://bravenewclimate.com/ asking whether the design basis for future reactors in Japan should be that they can survive an attack by Godzilla; no one’s ever seen a Godzilla in real life so far (though maybe the impact of a 10m wave is comparable), but since I can’t _prove_ with 100.0% certainty that Godzilla will never exist and rampage across Japan, then why _shouldn’t_ we make Godzilla the design basis for future nuclear plants? (at minimum; don’t forget Mothra…)

Before you can design _any_ technology you have to have a performance target to shoot for. There must be a rational, convergent process for setting those requirements in real life. I’m not sure what that should be be; but I am sure that saying “we must design against every possibility that no one can prove won’t happen” is not the answer.

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Doctor Memory 03.18.11 at 5:45 am

Landru, PHB: at the risk of pointing out the obvious, a mutual appeal-to-one’s-own-authority argument between two pseudonymous internet personas (or even one, frankly), while hilarious, is not very elucidating. If you’re going to play my-degree-is-bigger-than-yours, then put ‘em on the table: dissertation and publication citations, please.

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zamfir 03.18.11 at 6:49 am

Landru, no one has ever seen a gozilla, and no one as seen an earthquake and tsunami on this scale since 2004. One it not like the other.

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BillCinSD 03.18.11 at 7:05 am

While all the arguing about Uranium based nuclear power is fun and all, if there is a future of nuclear power, it is using Thorium as Landru pointed out at comment 4. Easier processing (with rare earth metals thrown on for good measure), spent fuel no worse than coal fly ash within a few hundred years, no possibility of a meltdown, no bomb material produced in the fuel cycle, can burn spent fuel from Uranium reactors, enough Thorium on Earth for 10,00 years of energy at the current world usage levels.

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zamfir 03.18.11 at 7:21 am

Also, ingestion of small amounts of thorium gives you a pony.

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Happy 03.18.11 at 7:23 am

It’s not fair when you’re all in a different timezone :-P

PHB@1

The US is currently planning to spend over a trillion dollars purchasing and flying a new fighter jet that will contribute exactly nothing to the US economy.

This is the most sensible thing you’ve written in the entire thread and fits neatly into my cynical world view as regards our ability to deal with the energy/climate issue in a timely fashion.
(oh, we Aussies have bought that white elephant too – and we paid $750m-ish up front if I recall correctly)
I’m fairly certain that we can’t look to our “great and powerful friend” for the solutions.

gordon@9

There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes.

Proliferation is one of the most valid arguments against the “traditional” nuclear fuel cycle.
As I mentioned, I’m an Aussie, so knowing that most of our bigger neighbours are potentially (if not actually) nuclear armed is a worry.

Tim@11

It’s not even really true that we must spend more on R&D. There’s no problem at all in getting VC funds [...] Holding off only a few years drastically reduces the price of an installation).

You make a valid argument, but have you tried raising a couple of hundred million lately?

Several reasonable (and well VC’ed) efforts here to get up a 100MW-ish solar plant have failed, and the ROI numbers have not been awful.

The problem is that it is still far cheaper (…) to dig coal out of the ground and burn it and pretty much all you need to do is get environmental approval for the hole in the ground and the scrubbers in the stack…

Lemuel Pitkin@29

Given that most rich countries now are faced with large output gaps and high unemployment [...] this counts as an argument for renewables, not against.

I do see your point but I’m not sure that argument totally holds water in the Australian context.

Also:
- installing PVs is not a low skilled or safe (in OH&S sense) job – it requires and electrical trades person almost everywhere I suspect; google for “australian insulation debacle” for where I’m coming from on this.
- we have pretty close to zero domestic production capacity for PV cells (so huge balance of trade issues); how about your country?

chris@34
In my state alone (Victoria) there is currently six coal power plants generating 6500 MW; a back of the envelope calculation for replacing that with my favourite flavour of solar (solar thermal, like in Spain) that would require about 80 square kilometres (ie: 0.03% of the state) and about $3500 million…
Dumb stainless steel pipes, shiny bits of metal, steam…not unreasonable at all even if you triple or quadruple all of that for land barons, political favours, cost overruns, contractor corruption etc.
I have not a clue as to what replacement nuclear plants would cost… It would be interesting but I guess it’s highly technology dependant.

PHB@80

It is pretty clear to me that LEDs could be used to make much more attractive lighting fixtures than are available on the market today. The key in my view is to stop thinking about them as ‘bulbs’ and instead think about them as being a part of the fixture itself.

It’s not that this is a bad idea in itself, it’s just that it doesn’t get us anywhere – the average house uses far more energy for refrigeration, cooking, climate control etc.

I’m all for energy efficiency, I wish that the building standards everywhere would change immediately to require this, and that all the appliance standards would change etc etc.
Short of a eco-fascist revolutionary government it’s never going to happen in a timely enough fashion.

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Alex Heyworth 03.18.11 at 8:00 am

Even with the best possible outcomes from the current crisis, nuclear power is off the agenda for a decade or more, at least in the developed world.

But why are the economics of nuclear so bad? In part, it is simply a matter of technology. Nuclear power has turned out to be more expensive than its advocates have expected, while alternative sources of energy, particularly gas, have become cheaper.

But the crucial problem for nuclear power has been fear. Fears about safety have meant that nuclear power plants have been held to much higher safety standards than alternatives like coal, which routinely spew pollutants of all kinds into the atmosphere.

Good post, John. I would just like to take up the points above to suggest that the implication is that more authoritarian regimes, like the PRC, are as a consequence going to be the leaders in implementing new nuclear technology for some time to come. As you suggest, gas is the most likely go-to source of base load electricity for the developed world, for the short term at any rate. The only concern some nations might have is with regard to reliability of supply. Ukraine, for example, might be reluctant to depend too much on the friendliness of the Russians. That could also be a concern for Japan, although they may feel that Australia can be relied on as a supplier unlikely to turn off the tap.

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sg 03.18.11 at 8:14 am

The US Govt established a research cohort after TMI, of all residents (including pregnant women) within 5 miles of the reactor when it melted down. They have been doing follow-up studies ever since, showing no change in rates of stillbirth (1983) and no difference in all-cause or cancer-specific mortality (last study about 203).

Various studies have been conducted in Europe, not just the WHO, and the consensus among the experts appears to be that Chernobyl had no long-term health effects except for (preventable) thyroid cancer in children, and solid cancer in the so-called “liquidators.” I think the WHO report mentioned upthread was quite controversial, and even Greenpeace have had difficulty finding any serious health consequences.

I’m returning to Tokyo on Sunday. I’m quite scared about being crushed in a massive earthquake. I’m not so worried about a meltdown.

115

PHB 03.18.11 at 12:47 pm

@adam

I did not mention the figure of 100 mrem, you did. I never made any claim whatsoever about the lethality of that or any other dose.

My claim is based on the following observations:

1) The power plant management have lied repeatedly since the start of the disaster. Numerous assurances have proven to be false. Thus I regard anyone who relies on any data from that source that cannot be independently validated to be naive at best if not engaged in active disinformation.

2) The plant is clearly in an unsafe condition and on the verge of a total meltdown yet staff were sent home.

3) The Soviet Union was not exactly noted for self-sacrifice except in party propaganda. Yet the Chernobyl operators stayed on post despite knowing that it was a virtual suicide mission. Japan has a well documented tradition of suicide being expected in this type of situation as a matter of duty.

116

Straightwood 03.18.11 at 12:54 pm

Would cooling pools be acceptable if they could prevent disaster with circulating power cut off for a week? a month? a year?

This is an irrelevant argument from extremes. The facts of the Fukushima disaster reveal that the cooling pools were badly situated and thus were damaged and rendered inaccessible. Cooling them is now a very big problem. The design decisions that led to this outcome were not “accidents.” They were made by large, well-funded, and highly respected institutions. These are the institutions that continue to assert that nuclear power is a safe and reliable technology.

Nuclear power advocates tend to treat each inconvenient fact as a singularly rare flaw in an otherwise excellent scheme, but the flaws are numerous and disturbing in their variety and ubiquity. At Fukushima, the flaws included:

- Insufficient battery backup power
- Inadequately protected emergency generators
- Lack of spare generators
- Location of the spent fuel pools within the reactor building
- No provision for hydrogen venting in the reactor building
- No hardened, redundant instrumentation and control facilities
- No emergency reservoir of treated cooling water
- No shielded emergency equipment (robotic?) for evaluation and repair
>
Thus the argument that every reasonable engineering precaution was taken is false. And this failure of design foresight is widespread in the nuclear power industry. As a species, we are very good at pocketing the cash and letting the future take care of itself. Apart from its technical shortcomings, nuclear power is a bad match for human organizational frailty.

117

PHB 03.18.11 at 1:02 pm

Happy @112

Yes, lighting is only a fraction of the total electricity demand but it is a very large one and the savings in power usage are quite spectacular.

My dining room has a total of 24 40W bulbs for a total of about 1000W (rarely used at the same time and never at full power). Yesterday I tried out a 2.5 W LED bulb that produces almost the same light output for a total of 60W. But for the fact that they currently cost $16 each and so the replacement cost is $384 it would be a no-brainer.

The reason lighting is so significant is the dramatic improvement that can be made in efficiency. about a quarter of the electricity usage is reduced by an order of magnitude.

Efficiency savings in refrigerators are good. But they are much more efficient to start with. It is not possible to make them more efficient by an order of magnitude – as is the case with lighting.

The reason I suggest a crash conservation program in Japan is that it is the only short term measure that could reduce the demand for electricity by the same amount as the lost nuclear capacity. They will have the usual programs in place of course, but they fall far short of being a national priority.

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sg 03.18.11 at 1:10 pm

PHB, I’ve lived in 4 or 5 houses in Japan and visited my friends’ and colleagues, and I have a good sense of how Japanese people live, and I can assure you that a house with 24 40w bulbs in the dining room is a very rare phenomenon here. They universally use a three-level single fluorescent ring-style lamp in every room. Japanese have very low electricity usage rated by GDP.

The big savings in energy in Japan would come from turning off the heating and aircon; sadly, given the earthquake situation and the low rents people pay here, the majority of housing is prefab-style apartments (aparto) that require heating and cooling equipment to be livable. But since a large proportion of Japanese energy comes from nuclear they don’t need to care.

You may have asked yourself why those Japanese houses floated on the tsunami waves – they’re designed to be cheap, prefab houses that go up easily and don’t kill you in an earthquake. But they require a lot of heating and cooling. Just like the paper houses of legend… so cutting down on already very efficient light bulbs is not the answer.

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PHB 03.18.11 at 1:31 pm

@straightwood

Nuclear power advocates tend to treat each inconvenient fact as a singularly rare flaw in an otherwise excellent scheme, but the flaws are numerous and disturbing in their variety and ubiquity.

That is precisely my problem with the industry, that and the culture of lying.

We still have people blathering on about the superiority of US designs based on the use of a ‘containment vessel’ despite the fact that at least two of the containment vessels have ruptured.

I don’t want to get into a detailed response to the comparative advantages of graphite vs water moderator designs. My point was merely that there is a design tradeoff and the Soviets were not alone in preferring the graphite moderator. The UK also chose the same design and not coincidentally since it is well documented that the Soviets stole their nuclear plant design from the UK.

The reason I used the term ‘run on effect’ is that I don’t actually know the US nuclear industry term which in turn is because it is not something that they have exactly been keen to publicize as an issue. The nearest technical term as far as I am aware would seem to be ‘self destruct mechanism’.

The benefits of a graphite core design are supposedly that the moderator can be kept cool through passive air cooling alone. That in turn is due to some complicated considerations of what the fuel density needs to be.

At the end of the day the UK nuclear power industry has not had a Three Mile Island incident (at least not that they have been forced to admit) nor have they built plants that are currently on the brink of meltdown.

Thus it appears to me that the bashing of the Chernobyl design as being intrinsically unsafe has more to do with special pleading to avoid the inconvenient facts rather than being based on an objective assessment of the facts.

Suffice to say that the 1960s UK Magnox design was quite reasonable for its day and is generally considered to be safer than the 1960s US designs. The safety of both designs falls far short of modern proposals such as pebble bed etc.

I don’t have any confidence in an industry that is lying about the safety of the new plants it proposes to build. Again, the Japanese reactors are in unsafe condition and threatening meltdown despite having the control rods inserted and despite having a containment vessel. Yet we are constantly told that these features make the US design ‘failsafe’.

As far as expertise goes, nobody on this thread has as much knowledge of the design or expertise in the field as the GE safety review team. Three of the members resigned declaring the design to be fundamentally unsafe. Yet we still have people calling people here ‘ignorant’ for daring to suggest that they might be right after the plant has failed in precisely the manner predicted.

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PHB 03.18.11 at 1:44 pm

@SG 118

Interesting, I guess that the bulk of their electrification was taking place somewhat later than in the US and so the incandescent bulb did not achieve the same status as the preferred quality of light.

They may be able to shave a few percent off consumption through measures like lights that turn out automatically in offices though.

Lightweight construction need not be energy inefficient.

121

bianca steele 03.18.11 at 1:51 pm

PHB (you mean your training isn’t actually in computer science?):
It seems that your argument is as follows: You believe the British/Soviet design is superior to the US design, not unnaturally given your training seems to have been in the UK. Differences of opinion are fine and to be expected. We haven’t had enough time to know which turned out to have been better. There are, of course, other considerations than a lab, much less blackboard, standard of perfection.

You say (if I understand you correctly) that at the time GE was designing the plant that Japan used at Fukushima, some members of the advisory board quit, saying the design was unsafe. You consider that fact to be evidence that those board members had the same beliefs as you, concerning the advantages of the British design over the US one–but you have no reason to think this was the case.

You offer some additional handwaving about the mathematics required to understand why the UK design is better, but again, you don’t really know that’s the case, and your implication that the designers of the US/Japan reactor didn’t do the math is not substantiated.

You may in fact be correct, but Landru’s argument seems to carry some weight.

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ScentOfViolets 03.18.11 at 2:05 pm

Like I said, if that’s going to be your justification, then you need to prove to me that the continued emission of greenhouse gases won’t raise average temperatures by 50 degrees C or more.

The case for AGW is based on scientific models. The warming theory deniers do attempt to undermine the models, but so far, the predictive models are holding up.

I have no idea what you’re on about with this one. I’m agreeing that CO2 emissions will raise temperatures. But not by five or even ten degrees. By fifty. That’s the black swan I’m talking about. And as you well know, the models are not all that accurate. In fact, time and again we’re treated to news releases about, say, glaciers retreating faster than anticipated.

So this mirrors your black swan claims about nuclear power, and the burden of proof is on you to show why this couldn’t happen, or why we shouldn’t stop burning fossil fuels today.

And I must say, it’s been pointed out to you several times the fallacy in your application of this idea – once you admit this possibility into the discussion, you’ve got to be consistent and apply it to all other situations as well.

As I said, Pascal’s Wager in disguise.

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Charlie 03.18.11 at 2:13 pm

#94:

When you write

“a graphite core. … The major advantage is that it permits a design that does in fact shut down when the control rods are dropped.”

I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “shut down,” but I can’t see a definition under which this passage makes any sense.

I think charitable readings of PHB are available. For instance: ‘a graphite core permits a design where fuel assemblies retain their integrity after an accident involving a loss of coolant or a failure of active coolant circulation’. This is from my layman’s survey of internet stuff that says how Magnox power plants are meant to work. Such a statement may or may not be true: I wouldn’t like to say.

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ScentOfViolets 03.18.11 at 2:15 pm

I’m very impressed that Scent of Violets has for some decades been more cognizant of design flaws, and comfortable with them, than probably 99% of the population.

Really? Can you point to where I said that? In fact, the claim by Straightwood was that:

. . .put it down to deliberate suppression of unpleasant information by the industry. Until Fukushima blew up, there was no widespread public knowledge that cooling pools for spent fuel required active, electrically powered circulation of cooling water . . .

Really? I repeat, I knew about cooling pools for storing hot waste in middle school, just as knew that hot waste can get very, very hot indeed. And as I pointed out, that information was not suppressed, but readily available and in public libraries. So if twelve-year-olds can find this out using non-electronic media forty-odd years ago, I don’t think that the industry has been too successful at “deliberately suppressing” this information.

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sg 03.18.11 at 3:14 pm

That’s right PHB, you tell it to ‘em. They have the most efficient energy use in the OECD, and the manufacture most of the shit you’ve ever heard of. But they can shave a few percent off their energy use through changing light bulbs.

I worked last year with a man who was chief engineer at a smelting plant in Tottori (that’s right PHB, you’ve never heard of this place, but you have a lot to tell us about Japan). His smelting plant used 30% of all of Tottori’s electricity generation capacity. Nippon steel distribute these factories around Japan so the load is better distributed.

You keep telling them about those light bulbs, PHB.

126

Straightwood 03.18.11 at 3:14 pm

I don’t think that the industry has been too successful at “deliberately suppressing” this information.

What fraction of the population do you believe was aware, prior to the Fukushima incident, that a nuclear plant would melt down if it suffered a sustained loss of electrical power? Regarding suppressed information, perhaps you should read the news headlines:

Nuclear Crisis in Japan Follows Decades of Faked Safety Reports, Accidents

127

Sev 03.18.11 at 4:03 pm

#116 ” Apart from its technical shortcomings, nuclear power is a bad match for human organizational frailty.”
I think this is the most succinct statement of the issue. Vulcans could probably manage it pretty well.

#112 “In my state alone (Victoria) there is currently six coal power plants generating 6500 MW; a back of the envelope calculation for replacing that with my favourite flavour of solar (solar thermal, like in Spain) that would require about 80 square kilometres (ie: 0.03% of the state) and about $3500 million…”
I believe water is also an issue. For example: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/30/business/energy-environment/30water.html

128

extexan 03.18.11 at 4:30 pm

PHB & Straightwood,

I must confess that all this talk of black swans breeding with thorium in fields of flaming graphite has me a bit confused. I get that the nuclear power industry are engaged in “deliberate suppression of unpleasant information” who have deceived the citizens of the world of the true dangers of nuclear power (#100). Also the engineering designs of the plants in Japan neglected to consider the impact of a 9.0 M earthquake followed by a 30m tsunami—a fact that is obvious from the pictures on the front page of today’s LA Times. And as you pointed out previously, the “explosion of a single reactor near a densely populated Chinese city” would cause significant loss-of-life (#75). I’m not entirely sure how a reactor melt down is going to kill everyone in the city—but I’ll skip over that for the moment since that’s a black swan and all.

So, could you please explain to me—in simple terms—what the alternative to nuclear power is? Because for all the problems and deceit that seems to come from the nuclear industry, I’m having a hard time understand how this is worse than the damage that is caused anthropogenic climate change. I don’t see how renewable energy is going to solve the issue of power generation in the near term given the baseline requirements of an industrialized country, and while conservation is certainly possible, getting ride of nuclear power and fossil fuel power production would eliminate about 65% of the US electrical generating capacity.

129

Landru 03.18.11 at 5:11 pm

“getting ride of nuclear power and fossil fuel power production would eliminate about 65% of the US electrical generating capacity.”

Is there a typo here? Not that it necessarily makes a big difference to the argument, but the typical numbers (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity_sector_in_the_United_States ) are that nuclear + fossil fuel (ie coal + gas) account for more like 90% of US electricity production; the balance is 7% hydro and 3% “renewables” (ie solar, wind, tidal, biomass, etc.). Since hydro is pretty well saturated, replacing all nuclear+fossil with other would require something like a x20-x30 amplification in the alternatives sector. This makes a bit of a difference, since your statement that nuclear+fossil is 65% sort of implies that the other 35% (or 30% excluding hydro) only needs to grow by x3 to cover the nut, and so sort of understates the task by an order of magnitude.

This is not to say that people aren’t necessarily up to the task, though! You can read not-utterly-ridiculous plans today for how world or US electricity production could be converted over entirely to non-(nuclear+fossil) by your baby’s middle age, say 2050. These plans typically assume a big (ie historically unprecedented) effort at increased efficiency/conservation (depending if you’re red/blue), and big whallops of solar and wind; but the backbone is usually biomass (technically a low-maintenance, self-assembling kind of solar power, if you like). My technical opinion, after having read a few, is that these kinds of plans seriously low-ball the cost of the conversion, and also overestimate the efficiency of the biomass source.

This, then, is the bottom line: a non-(nuclear+fossil) future may be possible, but given current technology it is likely to be _vastly_ more expensive than the non-fossil future powered mainly by nuclear. Are you willing to take the non-nuclear route, if it costs an extra 10% of GDP compared to just the switch to nuclear? What if it were 20% or 40% of GDP? This gets us back to the question of, what kinds of risks are worth what kind of investment to avoid or mitigate? And here I have to say (echoing many others) that the anti-nuclear side doesn’t usually shine in this kind of discussion, but rather shows a nearly-religious devotion to the notion that death by radiation is qualitatively, immeasurably worse than death from other causes.

Of course, current technology can always change. Secretary Chu seems to be placing his bets on some kind of breakthrough solar power, particularly chemical ie artificial plants. And he has a Nobel prize and I don’t, so who am I to argue?

130

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.18.11 at 5:41 pm

@129 a nearly-religious devotion to the notion that death by radiation is qualitatively, immeasurably worse than death from other causes.

I don’t have a strong opinion on this, but I don’t think this is a fair representation of the position in question.

Try this: sure, coal-burning is a terrible thing, but at least it doesn’t involve a frigging nuclear reaction. If skipping this phase is at all possible, this possibility certainly needs to be considered; why not?

131

Steve LaBonne 03.18.11 at 5:45 pm

Henri, you’ll have to try harder. Even though I’m a skeptic about nuclear power myself, what you just wrote doesn’t strike me as any different from (or more persuasive than) Landru’s formulation.

132

ScentOfViolets 03.18.11 at 5:59 pm

But why are the economics of nuclear so bad? In part, it is simply a matter of technology. Nuclear power has turned out to be more expensive than its advocates have expected, while alternative sources of energy, particularly gas, have become cheaper.

Perhaps that should be amended to “Why are the economics of nuclear so bad in the U.S.?”

But the crucial problem for nuclear power has been fear. Fears about safety have meant that nuclear power plants have been held to much higher safety standards than alternatives like coal, which routinely spew pollutants of all kinds into the atmosphere.

Hopefully this latest incident will put to bed once and for all the myth that nuclear power hasn’t been more heavily adopted in the U.S. because of those anti-tech, granola-crunching, hippie Greenpeace types who hate Progress and Capitalism (yeah, right. Just like we’ve finally managed to discredit that tired old theory that lowering taxes actually increase revenue.)

Good post, John. I would just like to take up the points above to suggest that the implication is that more authoritarian regimes, like the PRC, are as a consequence going to be the leaders in implementing new nuclear technology for some time to come. As you suggest, gas is the most likely go-to source of base load electricity for the developed world, for the short term at any rate.

Exactly. At the end of the day, we don’t have more nuclear penetration into the market (imho) because the Big Boys don’t want to leave off until the last drop of rent can be extracted from the last few liters of fossil fuels.

Bear in mind also that the cycle of design, test, and iterate seems to be broken with regards to this technology. It’s as if people were still driving Ford’s original Model T up into the 60′s and complaining how unsafe, shoddy, and dangerous they are. Iow, we should be about five or six iterations into the design of nuclear plants by now, instead of model 2.4. The thorium cycle, breeder reactors, pebble-bed reactors (first conceived in the 1940′s!), traveling-wave reactors, all of these could have been extensively researched and developed since at least as far back as, oh, 1980 or thereabouts. This hasn’t happened – again imho – because there are certain powerful agents who are heavily invested in more conventional energy technologies. In fact, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they excuse their foot-dragging on the grounds that nobody is going to be left high and dry when fossil fuels run low; obviously, nuclear power will be there to take up the slack.

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chris 03.18.11 at 6:03 pm

So, could you please explain to me—in simple terms—what the alternative to nuclear power is?

In the short to medium term the only realistic alternative is fossil fuels, which cause more deaths (even in the absence of natural disasters). And that industry has a *much worse* record of skipping known safety precautions, bribing inspectors, subverting the whole damn government to put industry insiders into high offices like Vice President, and even starting wars to secure their sources of supply and profit. And of course lying about it all.

Nuclear power is the worst form of power generation, except for all the others.

134

chris 03.18.11 at 6:05 pm

Try this: sure, coal-burning is a terrible thing, but at least it doesn’t involve a frigging nuclear reaction.

Why is a nuclear reaction worse than an oxidation-reduction reaction? Shouldn’t reactions be judged by their outcomes and dangers, not by what kind of process is involved?

Heck, solar energy *does* involve a frigging nuclear reaction, it’s just taking place at a convenient distance rather than in our back yards. Is that a reason to judge it more harshly?

135

ScentOfViolets 03.18.11 at 6:14 pm

I don’t think that the industry has been too successful at “deliberately suppressing” this information.

What fraction of the population do you believe was aware, prior to the Fukushima incident, that a nuclear plant would melt down if it suffered a sustained loss of electrical power?

What fraction of the population was aware of the recent storm of speculation that an arsenic-based form of life had been found? A little? A lot? Probably the former, though I daresay that no one attempted to suppress this idea (in fact, the controversy occurred over just the opposite.)

Iow, you’re shifting the goal-posts from “deliberately suppressed” to “was not aware of”. Though in fact, tying in to my observation above, the public seems to be moderately aware that deep-space craft are powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTG’s. I would have thought the fact that these radioactive elements run hot enough on their own (without any fission) to reliably power a multimillion dollar probe for years on end would have been a big enough cluestick.

136

PHB 03.18.11 at 6:33 pm

@SG

I doubt that reducing consumption in heavy industry can help much because that tends to already be timed to use off peak. At the very least they will be on a scheme that means they are shut down at times of peak demand. The chlorine cells I once worked on did not run at all during the day but the ramped up to full production the minute the economy-7 tariff kicked in.

@ biannca

The point I was making was that the special pleading made by the US nuclear power industry to explain Chernobyl is rather different to the special pleading made by the UK nuclear power industry. The conclusion I draw is that we should probably trust neither.

@ Chris

What is clear now is that the nuclear industry is dead. There will be no new nuclear plants built of any design for another decade. Even China is having second thoughts about their program.

The only short term alternative is conservation. The best medium term option looks like wind. It is possible that we can also tap solar and wave as the existing nuclear plants are decommissioned.

137

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.18.11 at 6:35 pm

Really, splitting the atom is nothing special these days, no different than making a campfire? I guess I must be too old, then.

138

ScentOfViolets 03.18.11 at 7:16 pm

These plans typically assume a big (ie historically unprecedented) effort at increased efficiency/conservation (depending if you’re red/blue), and big whallops of solar and wind; but the backbone is usually biomass (technically a low-maintenance, self-assembling kind of solar power, if you like). My technical opinion, after having read a few, is that these kinds of plans seriously low-ball the cost of the conversion, and also overestimate the efficiency of the biomass source.

The biomass seems to be a perennial favorite. I’ve seen schemes for unzipping polysaccharides, converting mid-ocean biomass into methyl (not ethyl!) alcohol, etc. The thing is, they always look good on paper, initial trial solutions seem to work well in the lab . . . and then the snags crop up. As always, it’s not the concept that’s off per se, it’s running the numbers in the real world. Anybody remember when thermal depolymerization was all the rage? The next big thing, turning bio waste like turkey guts into sweet, sweet oil? It’s a good idea in concept – if mother nature can turn dead things into oil over the course of millions of years, why can’t this be done artificially, and telescoped into mere hours or days?

Well, as it turns out, you can.

And, as usual, that promising bit of tech has run into a thicket of numbers. Sure hope it finally pans out :-(

This, then, is the bottom line: a non-(nuclear+fossil) future may be possible, but given current technology it is likely to be vastly more expensive than the non-fossil future powered mainly by nuclear. Are you willing to take the non-nuclear route, if it costs an extra 10% of GDP compared to just the switch to nuclear? What if it were 20% or 40% of GDP? This gets us back to the question of, what kinds of risks are worth what kind of investment to avoid or mitigate? And here I have to say (echoing many others) that the anti-nuclear side doesn’t usually shine in this kind of discussion, but rather shows a nearly-religious devotion to the notion that death by radiation is qualitatively, immeasurably worse than death from other causes.

Exactly. I’m not a huge fan of nuclear energy – nor, for that matter, are large numbers of knowledgeable people pressing for it’s widespread adoption. It’s just that as a numbers sort of thing, it happens to be the least bad alternative (sort of like voting against the worst Presidential candidate du jour.)

Of course, current technology can always change. Secretary Chu seems to be placing his bets on some kind of breakthrough solar power, particularly chemical ie artificial plants. And he has a Nobel prize and I don’t, so who am I to argue?

Hmmm . . . maybe solar cells that come out of a spray can with a hip name like “Black Power” and having no more than 3% overall efficiency but fantastically cheap to apply. Along with room-temperature superconductors and batteries with the energy density (by volume if not mass) of good old grade-A gasoline that don’t rely on exotic metals and cost no more than a few hundred bucks. None of which are forbidden by the laws of physics, or even chemistry.

A man can dream, to quote the inventor of the fing-longer :-)

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Metatone 03.18.11 at 10:15 pm

@132 – ScentofViolets

As I stated upthread, the biggest problem for the typical commercial (as opposed to evil socialistic government) nuclear power plant construction is that the insurance costs continue to be on the edge of making the deal unprofitable.

That’s actually an interesting phenomenon, because it seems to imply that the actuaries are not impressed by the arguments that say safety, waste disposal and decommissioning are solved problems.

The solution is public funding, but that’s tricky in a lot of ways.

140

zamfir 03.18.11 at 10:19 pm

Henri asks: Really, splitting the atom is nothing special these days, no different than making a campfire? I guess I must be too old, then.

Well, splitting atoms is hardly cutting edge. Seen from CERN levels of particle physics, nuclear and chemical reactions are almost brothers. And the chain reaction of u235 requires little more than a bunch of uranium, a moderator and some controlling neutron absorbers to work. Think about Fermi, who built the first reactor pile on a shoestring budget just a few years after the possibility was discovered at all.

Nuclear plants are hardly complicated industrial installations , and most of their complexity is in fact in the non-nuclear systems. The main thing is that fission products are by their nature heavily carcinogenic, making fission the mother of all health and safety issues. But that doesn’t make nuclear reactions particularly special.

If you’re an interested amateur with two right hands and some understanding of electrics, the internet will give you plans to build a small fusion reactor at home for some thousands of dollars (that consumes power, not a net producer, sadly). There is a devoted community to help you.

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Zamfir 03.18.11 at 10:35 pm

Metatone, my cynical impression is that insuring would be easier with a bit more accidents. Actuaries like to base their number on real-life experience of frequencies and damage (rightly so, apparently).

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Metatone 03.18.11 at 11:01 pm

Zamfir – true up to a point, but waste and decommissioning are less in that category and more just about actuaries agreeing with various posters who note that humans are bad at long term vigilance and care…

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extexan 03.18.11 at 11:23 pm

@Landru

Yep, it was a typo. The 65% figure was coal and nuclear. It excludes other fossil fuels like gas and petroleum. Source: http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epa_sum.html

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Straightwood 03.19.11 at 12:53 am

humans are bad at long term vigilance and care…

But we are good at denial and deception, so government and industry tell us that they will design, construct, and operate nuclear plants responsibly. Well-paid consultants, lobbyists, and politicians persuade the gullible public that this is so, and then KA-BOOM! Who could have foreseen the problem? Nuclear power technology and Homo Sapiens are a bad combination.

145

sg 03.19.11 at 1:27 am

PHB, is your suggestion to the Japanese that they should switch to part-time industry because you don’t like nuclear? I can assure you that Japanese steel production does not occur on the off-peak tariff – at least, not in rural Japan. It’s a 24/7, non-stop on demand production model.

Like I said above, the Japanese are running a very energy efficient economy. They just happen to produce all the shit the world needs. Mitsubishi heavy industries is called that for a reason, you know. Switching power systems now means either becoming a massive fuel importer or giving up their wealth (and forcing the world to take over that production). The world isn’t going to go back on this whole wealth thing; we need realistic energy generation.

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ScentOfViolets 03.19.11 at 1:36 am

Really, splitting the atom is nothing special these days, no different than making a campfire? I guess I must be too old, then.

Well, once the novelty wore off, the short answer is, well no, splitting the atom isn’t considered all that special these days. In fact, billions of years ago, natural reactors were assembled and run without intelligent guidance for many tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of years without suffering meltdowns. Have you ever heard of Oklo?

147

ScentOfViolets 03.19.11 at 1:47 am

As I stated upthread, the biggest problem for the typical commercial (as opposed to evil socialistic government) nuclear power plant construction is that the insurance costs continue to be on the edge of making the deal unprofitable

That’s actually an interesting phenomenon, because it seems to imply that the actuaries are not impressed by the arguments that say safety, waste disposal and decommissioning are solved problems.

Well, it’s true that actuaries in this instance aren’t moved all that much by arguments about safety or waste disposal or anything so physically crass as that.

What they’re interested in is liability

And in this climate, a woman could sue a utility for the inadvertent leakage of a few curies on the grounds that the baby she gave birth to the day after had a cleft palate . . . and win. Remember, it matters not whether real harm has been done; it’s enough that nuclear-powered utilities can be found and held liable for said imaginary harm.

The engineering problem of what to do with nuclear waste? Well, that’s a solved problem.

148

Straightwood 03.19.11 at 2:26 am

The world isn’t going to go back on this whole wealth thing; we need realistic energy generation.

As long as the wealth thing is coupled to the growth thing, the world is going to have to go back. The resources are finite and the growth appetite is insatiable. In a struggle between politics and physics, physics wins. World population, and population growth will either be managed down, with a moderate amount of suffering, or face collapse, with catastrophic suffering.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.19.11 at 9:19 am

The main thing is that fission products are by their nature heavily carcinogenic, making fission the mother of all health and safety issues.

See, this is exactly the presentation of the anti-nuclear argument that I object to. Fission products are carcinogenic, fire can burn you (and it ruins the climate), a dam can drown you. But even a caveman can control fire, it’s not complicated. Ancient people built and maintained dams. Fission, OTOH, involves a chain-reaction; it is, in a sense, a controlled nuclear explosion; constant, continued, complicated manipulation of an extremely dangerous process. Carcinogens are a part of it, but surely there’s more to the story? Or am I being a reactionary here?

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Myles 03.19.11 at 9:45 am

Carcinogens are a part of it, but surely there’s more to the story? Or am I being a reactionary here?

Nuclear is scary because it acts invisibly. It can come from the thin air. That’s the scary part.

It also seems unnatural. Fire occurs in nature; beavers build damns, but noticeable fission on the surface of the earth generally requires very deliberate human action. Humans simply have not had the long time to adapt, culturally, socially, biologically, to it. Fission, to us, is as alien and frightening as iron swords and firearms must have been to the Incas, or perhaps indeed the Maxim gun to the peoples of Africa.

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Zamfir 03.19.11 at 10:50 am

Henri, I didn’t want to be dismissive of the risks at all. A nuclear reactor contains a shitload of highly unhealthy stuff, plus lots of energy that make it possible to break barriers and spread. “Health and safety” is a serious business. The UK nuclear regulator for example has been part of the Health and Safety Executive for years.

But “chain reactions” are not something special, and the energy and forces here are not in themeselves a huge risk for anyone but the workers present. Fire is a reasonably similar chain reaction: a fuel is a collection of molecules in a high-energy state, and they are kicked out of that state if they receive the release energy from their neighbours.

Think about forest fires, or coal mine fires, or burning refineries. The lesser amount of energy per reaction is easily compensated by the greater abundance of oxygizing fuel, and because you need no special geometry or moderation to make a fire continue.

Even Chernobyl was not an incredibly powerful explosion. A few years ago, a fireworks factory in my country exploded, with far more direct damage as result. The reason Chernobyl was such a disaster was that it spread a third of a core of fission products high into the air.

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Straightwood 03.19.11 at 1:55 pm

If one considers every component, coupling, connection, and weld in a nuclear plant as an opportunity for negligence, cost shaving, omission, and error, how many components and steps are likely to be deficient, given what we know about human nature and organizational weaknesses?

Now add to the likely facility flaws the possibilities for operator error, terrorist sabotage, and natural disaster and you have a very expensive time bomb, with an indeterminate fuse setting. This is not a “safe” technology. Once the fuel starts to melt, there is no way to reverse the damage; it can only be contained at horrendous cost in money and lives.

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Ryan 03.19.11 at 11:15 pm

Straightwood: Do you think the same kind of standard holds true for hydroelectric dams? Big dams breaking could easily kill tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people. And it’s happened before. In 2009, a Russian dam accident killed 79 people. In 1975, the Banqiao Dam failure killed 26,000 people directly, and 145,000 people indirectly, and negatively affecting millions more. Should the US close all of its hydroelectric power generation facilities? After all, they’re very expensive time bombs – too much rain, mechanical failure, or a terrorist attack would result in truly awful consequences.

How about coal plants? Just through normal, glitch-free operation, they kill many many people in a predictable manner, through increased radiation exposure, air and water problems, coal mining accidents, etc.

Or perhaps oil and gas refineries and drilling sites? Those (regular) oil spills and drilling accidents kill people with some frequency, refineries are terrorist targets, and many of the chemicals that go into say, gasoline production are extremely hazardous to one’s health. If storage tanks of these chemicals were to be attacked and the chemicals were airborne near cities (as several of them are close by), it would kill hundreds of thousands of people. Besides the regular (relatively high level) of fatalities associated with these industries compared to nuclear.

Other than fission giving you the creeps, is there a reason to hold it at such a vastly higher standard than the relevant alternatives? Take the Toshiba 4S reactor (as an example of a modern reactor design), and compare it to any other source of 10MW of baseload power: what makes it intrinsically worse than these other sources of power? These other sources of power are MUCH less secured against attacks, they have FAR less regulation governing their use, and have regular, predictable fatalities (in the case of fossil fuels), besides having opportunities for cataclysmic failures.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.20.11 at 11:17 am

Other than fission giving you the creeps, is there a reason to hold it at such a vastly higher standard than the relevant alternatives?

Because the alternatives have been around for a long time, the dangers are known, and, as you noticed, predictable. Not so with fission; you don’t quite know what to expect, when, under what circumstances.

Now, if expanding, turning nuclear into the main source of power is unavoidable – that’s one thing, but if it’s just a temporary phase between the current situation and the renewables becoming, perhaps only a few decades from now, the main source of energy – then perhaps this dangerous and painful trial-and-error experience can be skipped altogether?

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Straightwood 03.20.11 at 3:00 pm

Other than fission giving you the creeps, is there a reason to hold it at such a vastly higher standard than the relevant alternatives?

There seems to be some difficulty in explaining qualitative differences in risk to nuclear power advocates. Even the worst accidents that can befall a coal, oil, or gas-fired plant have a tolerable upper bound of damage. They are also readily remediable. That is why such plants can be built without government guarantees and risk waivers.

Nuclear plants, by contrast, have very serious and indeterminate extreme failure scenarios. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were “remediated” over many years at enormous cost, and the entombment of Chernobyl is still cracking. A failed fossil fuel plant does not poison the environment with radioactivity for a five mile radius. A failed fossile fuel plant cannot emit a radioactive fallout cloud that can sicken and kill thousands in cities downwind.

Nuclear power technology vexes us because it reveals the illogic of our destructive simplifications of risk. By pretending that the risks associated with nuclear energy are tractable and tolerable, we have set ourselves up for one “unexpected” disaster after another.

Please enlighten us by explaining what the likelihood is of the next catastrophic nuclear plant failure, and how you derived the estimate.

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Chris Crawford 03.20.11 at 4:56 pm

First, I apologize for entering this discussion so late. I hope that the comments I can offer are of utility to the group. First, some general comments:

1. Despite all the brouhaha, there is a bottom line measurement of the harm inflicted by a nuclear plant on the general public: the total radioactive emissions. This can be a little tricky if you want to be strictly correct. For example, releases of radioiodine might not add up to a lot of curies, but their biological pathways make such releases particularly injurious. In the same way, releases of plutonium, while extremely tiny, are nevertheless significant because they are also extremely dangerous. On the other hand, quite a few releases are of such short half-lives that they pose essentially no threat to the public, even though they might be quite intense at the plant itself.

It is impossible to accurately measure all these different factors simultaneously. However, we have two proxies that give us a reasonably good quick-and-dirty estimate. The first of these is the distinction between gaseous emissions and particulate emissions. The gaseous emissions consist of steam and water droplets that might contain tiny particles. These emissions can carry a good deal of radioactivity, but most of it is of lesser public health significance. The particulate emissions are, in general, much more dangerous. They come from smoke from fires, and they carry all sorts of radionuclides from inside the fuel.

Thus, our first proxy is smoke versus steam. The only smoke emissions we had were from the two fires in the spent fuel pools. These were definitely serious emissions. But the bulk of the emissions were gaseous, of lesser concern. (I remind you that the Chernobyl emissions were almost entirely smoke, which is one reason why they were so catastrophic.) This first proxy, then, nonquantitatively suggests that this accident is much less serious than Chernobyl.

The second proxy is more quantitative: the total amount of radioactivity measured at the gate. This gives us a rough idea of the amount of radioactivity released to the environment. I offer two sources of this measurement:

, and . These are both a few days out of date, but they give us a good starting point. If you carry out an eyeball integration of these graphs, you can get an estimate of the total radioactive emissions; I get about 100 millisieverts over the entire accident. In other words, if you had been camped out at the front gate of the Fukushima plant for the last 9 days, you would have received a total dose of 100 millisieverts, which is enough to increase your chances of getting cancer by about 0.5%. If you scale this down by distance from the reactor and apply it to the surrounding population, you get a total population impact of about 0.01 additional cases of cancer. I know that number seems astoundingly small given the font size of the headlines, but that’s what the numbers say. But surely you will agree that, even if we pad the result by multiplying it by 1,000, we still get only 10 additional cases of cancer.

Of course, there remain plenty of gotchas in this calculation. Perhaps the gate radiation monitor was wrong. Perhaps there will be a big fire releasing gobs of radionuclides. Perhaps there will be an aftershock. Perhaps I screwed up the calculation — please double-check it to see if you can find any errors (I myself am surprised by how low the result is).

But if this result is anywhere in the ballpark of the truth, then we have to conclude that this was not a disaster, and in fact, constitutes a shining example of just how safe these machines are. Some of the oldest, most obsolete reactors in the inventory, which are acknowledged to be among the least safe in the world, were subjected to the fifth-largest earthquake in recorded history, inundated in a monster tsunami, underwent extreme failures, and yet the safety systems held the total public injury to 0.01 additional cancers. The routine daily emissions of fossil-fueld plants much exceed these results.

2. If you run it by the numbers, nuclear advocates should be dancing the streets, shouting to the heavens the ultimate proof of just how safe these machines are. But in politics, perception is reality. The numbers say “triumph” but the headlines said “disaster” — and the headlines always overwhelm the truth. I see the extinction of our civilization in this truth. Our body politic lacks the wisdom to comprehend a complex technical problem and draws a conclusion exactly the opposite of the reality. We see the same thing with the teaching of evolution and climate change denial: a total failure to comprehend complex scientific truth. As science and technology advance, they will impose ever more serious problems such as this, and our response to those problems will fall ever more short of what is appropriate. Ultimately, we will face some scientific/technical problem that we simply cannot cope with intellectually, and it will destroy us.

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Chris Crawford 03.20.11 at 4:57 pm

Curses! I screwed up the links. Here they are in plain text:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/03/16/world/asia/20110316-japan-quake-radiation.html?ref=science

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FukushimaRadiationPlot-Log-Mar19.png

You see? Even a guy with 40 years of programming experience can’t get the technical stuff right all the time. We’re doomed. ;-)

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Chris Crawford 03.20.11 at 6:03 pm

If I may, I’d like to attempt to address Straightwood’s point in #155 concerning the likelihood of catastrophic failure. There are several approaches. The first is to observe that history provides us with a goodly amount of data regarding the safety performance of Western nuclear power reactors. That historical record is basically perfect: in the four decades since we began operating nuclear power plants, and with hundreds of plants operating all over the world, there has not been a single case of a serious accident harming any significant number of members of the public.

At this point, the reader may question my grip on reality. What about Chernobyl? The “catch” here is that I am excluding the Chernobyl accident because that design is of a completely different type, and it would never have come close to obtaining a license to operate in any western country. By way of example, the crash of a unique homemade aircraft says nothing to the safety of a modern airliner.

Yes, there have been plenty of hair-raising accidents at various military nuclear facilities — but again, military facilities have always been exempt from the licensing requirements of civilian power plants. This truly is an apples and oranges situation.

Of course, a perfect past does not insure a perfect future. How do we know that a nuclear accident will never happen? Obviously, we don’t. Straightwood raises the substantial point that the low probability of a serious nuclear accident could be outweighed by the high damage inflicted by such an accident. However, I think that society has already addressed the issue of low-probability, high-consequence accidents. We accept the existence of nuclear weapons in our midst (well, not New Zealand) even though the accidental detonation of one of these would be truly catastrophic. We build high dams that could kill tens of thousands were they to fail. We operate large jet aircraft that could inflicts thousands of casualties were they to suffer an unlikely accident or be hijacked by terrorists — and we operate a LOT more such aircraft than nuclear power plants!

Moreover, we have high risks embedded in our infrastructure. Were a magnitude 9 earthquake to strike the Los Angeles area, the loss of power, combined with the destruction of freeways, damage to water and gas pipes, collapse of large buildings, and the likelihood of fires raging out of control, could easily result in tens of thousands of casualties. Yet we do not expend the funds required to protect ourselves against such an incident because we judge the cost-benefit ratio to be too high for such an expenditure.

Furthermore, it is necessary to compare total systemic risk, not just exotic accident risk. We know that the probability of a nuclear accident killing, say, ten thousand people, is greater than zero. Let’s just posit that the probability of such an accident is one in a thousand per reactor-year of operation. This seems a ludicrously high value to me, as we have already had more than a thousand reactor-years of experience with no such result, but let’s nevertheless be grandly pessimistic. In such a case, we can quantify the total cost of nuclear reactor operation as 10 deaths per reactor-year of operation. Now contrast that with the supposedly low-risk of operation of a coal-fired power plant. I do not have the numbers at hand, but I vaguely recall seeing one calculation estimating the body count at about 100 per year of operation, largely from emissions that generate cancer, heart disease, and respiratory diseases. Thus, we end up comparing the total casualties per year of operation of both sources of power — and the nuclear result comes out so much lower than the coal-burning result that we must conclude that the safest overall strategy is to replace coal-burners with nuclear plants. Once all the coal-burners have been eliminated, we should talk about replacing the nuclear plants with something safer — if we have such a technology.

I caution readers against the common tendency to place more emphasis on sensational deaths than everyday deaths. Sure, tales of radioactivity insidiously killing innocents are horrific, but the death of a fat middle-aged guy from emphysema deserves just as much of our concern as the death of a fat middle-aged guy from radioactivity-induced cancer.

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Straightwood 03.20.11 at 6:55 pm

@158

Your argument assumes that one can accurately estimate the risk of a catastrophic nuclear accident, so please provide supporting evidence. You also attempt to equate nuclear catastrophes with other types of large-scale accidents that do not have open-ended costs. Nobody knows what the ultimate cost of containing the Chernobyl (and soon, Fukushima) mess will be. How many more of these disasters can the world afford?

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Ryan 03.20.11 at 7:28 pm

Straightwood: So, I assume that you also wish to claim that we should immediately stop using oil? We have no idea of the long-term consequences of the Deepwater Horizon spill, and the dispersants used in cleanup. That ecosystem is shockingly modified, with oil showing up all over the place where we did not expect to find it. And these spills happen with a great amount of frequency around the world. Near refineries, chemicals like benzene and hydroflouric acid could, in the instance of an explosion, become large poison gas clouds that would kill hundreds of thousands of people, either immediately or through longer-run cancer risks. Do you have a model for why this is a smaller risk that nuclear power?

Also, note that the majority of nuclear engineering focuses on developing passive safety systems, designed to systematically reduce the dangers related to natural disaster, terrorist attack, or human failure. Modern reactor design (like the Toshiba 4S design, or even Pebble Bed Reactors, or Traveling Wave Reactors), all go a long way to eliminate precisely those things that failed in Japan. Modern reactor design explicitly focuses on worst-case scenarios, and designs around ensuring that things fail in a manageable way with multiple passive safety systems.

Even in a not-so-great reactor design, like what we’re seeing in Japan, we are seeing the consequences of pretty much the worst possible confluence of events: the strongest recorded earthquake in Japan, a series of enormous tsunamis, massive power failures, etc, and it looks like the outcome is still going to be less mortality risk than what a coal plant is expected to do to people in a given year of operation. So again, why should we treat this as a remarkably different sort of thing than any other major industrial facility? Fossil fuels have much much higher expected casualties associated with their use, and in truly awful accidents, there aren’t really different upper bounds (especially in the case of oil). Instead, you’re suggesting that we should prefer a very high rate of unnecessary deaths from fossil fuel use to nuclear, because again, fission gives you the creeps.

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Straightwood 03.20.11 at 7:41 pm

Even in a not-so-great reactor design, like what we’re seeing in Japan, we are seeing the consequences of pretty much the worst possible confluence of events: the strongest recorded earthquake in Japan, a series of enormous tsunamis, massive power failures, etc, and it looks like the outcome is still going to be less mortality risk than what a coal plant is expected to do to people in a given year of operation.

If Fukushima is stabilized, it will be a lucky thing. Just a day or two ago, experts were contemplating the spent fuel pools burning up and showering the country with high-level fallout. Now, you confidently point to Fukushima as proof of how safe nuclear power is?

I agree that fail-safe reactors designs would change the risk calculations, but we don’t have them yet, and thus we should not build any more reactors that are time bombs, awaiting an “unexpected” event.

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Chris Crawford 03.20.11 at 7:49 pm

Straightwood, Ryan has already nailed down the key points that answer your question, but I’d like to tack on a few extras:

1. We never enjoy omniscience in any political decision we make. Therefore, we rely on our best estimate, recognizing the problems that may arise should we be wrong. We do have some history on which to found such estimates. The Three Mile Island accident showed us how to handle a meltdown accident, and while that accident represents a huge financial cost for the owner, the lessons from TMI will surely be applied at Fukushima. Indeed, we can also apply some of the extensive research that has gone into rad waste disposal.

You argue that there is a qualitative difference between nuclear accidents and other classes of accidents because the nuclear accidents are “open-ended”. I disagree. True, there will be impacts of any serious accident extending over long periods of time, but that doesn’t imply that the costs are incalculable. Remember, the emergency personnel who survived the 9/11 attacks in New York were exposed to some asbestos — we’ll be having respiratory system cancers from that group for decades. Decades later, the shores contaminated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill still show some of the effects — and tar balls still wash up on shore occasionally.

Finally, let’s not forget that your argument is founded on the assumption of a worst-case scenario that has never taken place, is extremely likely to take place, and which will be obviated by the retirement of LWRs in preference to modern designs. Yes, it *could* happen — but are the chances of it happening high enough to require inclusion into our deliberations? After all, we have not taken into account the odds of an asteroid hitting a nuclear power plant. There are lots of extremely low-probability, high-consequence scenarios that are plausible, but of such low probability that I think it safe to dismiss them. The kind of accident you’re talking about falls into that class.

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Chris Crawford 03.20.11 at 8:00 pm

If Fukushima is stabilized, it will be a lucky thing. Just a day or two ago, experts were contemplating the spent fuel pools burning up and showering the country with high-level fallout. Now, you confidently point to Fukushima as proof of how safe nuclear power is?

Really? You think that we’re lucky to have avoided a catastrophe? You’re basing that judgement on personal opinion — do you really think you know enough about nuclear safety for your assessment to be reliable? A week ago, when I learned that they had succeeded in getting seawater into the cores of the stricken reactors, I concluded that we were over the worst. My conclusion proved to be correct. Although there were plenty of scares during the last week, the underlying dynamics, the fundamentals of what was going on, were all in our favor. The continuing accidents, including hydrogen explosions and fires, did not alter the fundamentals. I don’t think that we were lucky at all. The biggest surprise for me was how little radiation was released. With all that damage, I expected a lot more radioactive emission.

You write that “experts were contemplating contemplating the spent fuel pools burning up and showering the country with high-level fallout.”. Let’s be more precise: were they “expecting”, “anticipating”, “fearing”, or perhaps “conjecturing”? Had I been there, I would have considered that a possibility requiring preventative action to head off, and in fact that is exactly what they did.

Every single time a plane lands, the pilot contemplates the possibility of a horrible accident should a last-minute gust of wind or engine failure cause a perturbation in the plane’s trajectory. Every single landing is subject to that possibility. Yet we do it over and over, thousands of times every day. Should the *possibility* of such an event induce us to reject air travel?

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Alex 03.21.11 at 2:11 am

And in this climate, a woman could sue a utility for the inadvertent leakage of a few curies on the grounds that the baby she gave birth to the day after had a cleft palate . . . and win. Remember, it matters not whether real harm has been done; it’s enough that nuclear-powered utilities can be found and held liable for said imaginary harm.

The solution to this is to get rid of torts for compensation and do what they did in New Zealand – replace it with a state-funded no-fault compensation scheme. It’s a natural extension of the welfare state. The Woodhouse Report was a work of brilliance.

Of course, when US Republicans call for tort reform, this probably isn’t what they mean.

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Straightwood 03.21.11 at 1:04 pm

Should the possibility of such an event induce us to reject air travel?

You seem to have a predilection for false analogies. Air travel safety is statistically highly tractable, but nuclear power accidents are not. Fukushima just tripled the number of destroyed reactors in the history of this technology. You have no idea of the cost of decontaminating the Fukushima plant, just as you have no idea of the probability of the next Fukushima-scale disaster. What you do have is the weight of conventional wisdom on your side. This wisdom was formed, in large part, by the institutional constituencies who would profit from nuclear plant construction.

Since you are fond of the air travel risk analogy, I should point out that before the Hindenberg blew up, there was a solid six-year record of reliable long-distance Zeppelin passenger service. Had you been commenting at the time, I am sure that you would have defended the reliability of Zeppelin technology.

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Zamfir 03.21.11 at 1:32 pm

People here might be interested in the atmoshpheric analyses published by the university of Karlsruhe over the last days, at http://www.kit.edu . In the wake of Chernobyl, they (as part of a greater European effort) have developed rather detailed models of long term and short term radioactivity spread, to aid decision makers in case of emergencies.

They are publishing projections, based on best estimates of the current situation in Japan made by GRS, the main German nuclear safety organization, coupled with current weather conditions. Their projections seem for now to match recorded values reasonably well.

At the site you will also find a document of a few days ago, called 001 or something like that, in which they consider besides a best estimate also a total meltdown scenario coupled with strong wind directly towards Tokyo.

This (roughly worst case) scenario gives for the next year radiation levels in Tokyo of about 1 mSv in total, or roughly doubling natural background radiation. This increases as you get closer to the site, to about 10 to 100 times natural levels in parts of the evacuated zone.

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Chris Crawford 03.21.11 at 3:20 pm

Straightwood, the air analogy is neither false nor probative; it is an analogy, which means that it shares some attributes with the reactor safety issue, and does not share other attributes. I agree, it proves nothing, but I’m not trying to cram anything down your throat; I’m trying to offer useful discussion of a serious issue.

I agree that the statistical datasets of air safety are much, much larger than the statistical datasets for nuclear reactor safety (which in turn are much larger than for Zeppelin technology at the time of the Hindenberg accident). However, the size of the dataset does not establish proof, it establishes degree of confidence. The airplane pilot has good reason to believe that his chances of an accident upon landing are much less than one in a million. In the same manner, the public has good reason to believe that the chances of a reactor accident releasing harmful amounts of radiation are extremely low — much less than one per thousand reactor-years of operation.

Consider that (as has already been pointed out) we have here a case of one of the oldest, least safe reactor designs, subjected to the fifth-largest earthquake in recorded history AND a gigantic tsunami — whose safety systems successfully prevented the release of publicly injurious amounts of radioactivity. This was just about the worst possible set of conditions that could be thrown at any nuclear plant — yet its safety systems worked. I think we can safely conclude from this episode that the probability of an injurious accident arising from an earthquake is very low.

You seem to be arguing (correct me if I’m wrong) that we require extremely high standards of confidence in order to justify a policy decision. I counterargue that we can never have extremely high standards of confidence regarding any policy decision. In the case of nuclear power policy, the risks imposed by nuclear power must be weighed against the risks of climate change. How serious are those risks? I am very confident that anthropogenic emissions of carbon will trigger substantial climate change, and that this climate change will lead to millions of deaths and trillions of dollars in losses. Yet I cannot come close to offering any kind of statistical support for my belief. The statistical database for this policy is empty: we have absolutely zero historical cases of humanity releasing large amounts of carbon and thereby triggering (or not triggering) climate change. Should we therefore dismiss the potential of climate change and opt for a policy of deliberate inaction?

Policymaking is so contentious precisely because we can never be certain about the factors that inform our decisions. Yet we are forced to make decisions — to act or not to act, to a greater degree or a lesser degree. Those decisions MUST be made in the absence of proof or even strong certitude. So we rely on our best available information and our rational analysis of the evidence we do have. Relying on vague, unsubstantiated fears is the same kind of thinking that led so many Americans to support the invasion of Iraq. We cannot afford to succumb to emotionalism; only rationalism can get us through the increasingly complex problems forced upon us by science and technology.

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Straightwood 03.21.11 at 3:43 pm

This was just about the worst possible set of conditions that could be thrown at any nuclear plant—yet its safety systems worked.

No, the safety systems did not work at Fukushima – unless you assume the destruction of four reactors and release of lethal radiation reflects a “working” safety system. Recall that the goal of nuclear plant safety systems is to prevent the release of significant radioactivity into the atmosphere. The Fukushima site is still emitting high levels of radioactive debris, witness the current headline:

Workers flee Japan nuclear plant as smoke rises

That smoke is radioactive, and it poses a potentially lethal threat to workers. If you consider the Fukushima disaster an example of a working safety system, you have a very peculiar notion of what safety means.

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Chris Crawford 03.21.11 at 4:05 pm

I suspect that you are misinterpreting the significance of that smoke. Smoke is only an indirect indicator, and an often misleading one. We don’t need to engage in such indirect measures, for the plant bristles with meters for detecting radiation at many different points. Some of those meters are inside the buildings, and so do not tell us anything about the amount of radioactivity released to the environment. However, there is one meter that is very useful in this regard: the gate meter. This records the radioactivity levels at the front gate of the plant. You can find a graph of radioactive releases from March 12th through March 19th here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FukushimaRadiationPlot-Log-Mar19.png

It clearly shows that the amount of radioactivity released by the accident adds up to an integrated dose at the gate of about 100 millisieverts — as I wrote earlier, this is enough to increase your chances of getting cancer by 0.5%.

Let’s be clear on the definition of “safety”. You seem to be including financial loss suffered by the operator in your definition. The destruction of the reactors falls into that category. However, my own definition of safety is confined to any health consequences to the general public. The radiation measures clearly show that the health impact on the general public by this accident is much less than one death. I therefore conclude that the safety systems were successful.

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Salient 03.21.11 at 4:26 pm

However, there is one meter that is very useful in this regard: the gate meter.

I thought there was controversy over whether or not the gate meter adequately measures airborne smoke radiation, can you speak to that? I heard on news-radio something about the potential for currently-unmeasured airborne radiation falling back to ground level in precipitation, but I don’t know enough about the construction of gate meters (or the half-life of the particular radioactive substances being lofted in smoke) to evaluate whether or not this could become a medium- or long-term concern. (And it’s not like this morning’s news radio went into detail.) I’d welcome some insight/evaluation of this.

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Straightwood 03.21.11 at 4:26 pm

The radiation measures clearly show that the health impact on the general public by this accident is much less than one death. I therefore conclude that the safety systems were successful.

Your pronouncement on the public health impact of the Fukushima accident is premature and ill-founded. What is the level of impact on the general public that would cause you to change your views on the safety of nuclear power generation?

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Zamfir 03.21.11 at 4:28 pm

This was just about the worst possible set of conditions that could be thrown at any nuclear plant—yet its safety systems worked.
Well, no. The safety systems of some of the reactors failed completely, and had to be replaced by jury-rigged backups, like direct injections into the core, venting to the atmosphere and cooling by fire truck spray. That’s why we are looking at the current situation. The reactors 5&6, or at the Daini site are examples of reactors that encountered the tsunami and kept most (or at least enough) functioning safety systems.

All we can say is that jury-rigged measures combined with the remaining strength of the RPV and containment seem to keep releases of radioactive materials limited, at the moment to levels of harm typical of non-nuclear industrial accidents. That’s good, I guess, but hardly “working safety systems”.

@Strigthwood, the smoke appeared not to change radiation levels. http://www3.nhk.or.jp/daily/english/21_h30.html

Be careful with American news sources, they seem to have trouble following the Japanese news quickly. When that article you refer to was published, it was already known in Japan for many hours that the smoke had gone without effects, even on English-language news.

I am not sure why that is that case. It might be that when journalists wake up, they just pick a random event from during their own night and write about it as if it just happened.

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ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 4:47 pm

You seem to have a predilection for false analogies. Air travel safety is statistically highly tractable, but nuclear power accidents are not.

Put me down as another person whose getting rather fed up with Straightwood’s tactics. I’m going to switch out hats and put my math one on: just what, precisely is your expertise in saying something like this Straightwood, and what, precisely, do you mean? And just how is it relevant? It looks like you’re just throwing buzzwords around without knowing their definitions (hint: you might want to find out what “statistically tractable” means. Having a “small” data set ain’t it.[1])

Further – you have been asked repeatedly by several people why your Black Swan analysis is only applied to nuclear and not elsewhere. I myself have pointed out that when modeling climate, the numbers are not “statistically tractable”, to use your peculiar nomenclature. How do we know that the average temperature won’t rise by 50 degrees, as opposed to two, three, or five? Don’t forget that climatologists have also had something of a pattern of inaccurate predictions – in the wrong direction. You see stuff in the literature and in the popular media where temperatures are rising faster, or ice is melting quicker than predicted.

So here’s the deal: you better respond, and respond quickly in good faith. Otherwise, I for one will dismiss you as a dishonest crank who never had any intention of listening to opposing arguments. Certainly all you’ve done so far is play the King Log game with your “prove to my satisfaction that I’m wrong” schtick. You’ve provided zero argumentation for your case and instead want everyone to cater to your feelings.

Not. Going. To. Happen.

[1]How large a sample do you have to have to establish a statistic with 95% confidence on a population of millions? Answer: not much more than a thousand. That’s surprising to a lot of people, but nevertheless happens to be true for something like the population mean.

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Steve LaBonne 03.21.11 at 5:00 pm

I’m not a huge fan of nuclear power and would prefer to see it be at most one prong of any comprehensive strategy to transition away from fossil fuels (though I live a couple of miles from a nuke plant and I have to say that really doesn’t keep me awake at night), but it’s worth reiterating that we do have here a true worst-case scenario of an obsolete plant overwhelmed by an off-the-charts catastrophe. And while we’re not out of the woods yet, so far the effect on public health seems likely to be well within the range of what coal power does routinely, without even taking climate change into account. If that results in torpedoing the nuclear power industry, that will be an emotional response and not a rational one.

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Zamfir 03.21.11 at 5:04 pm

@ Salient. The gate meter is far from an infallible source. Smoke can rise mostly over it, or it might blow in some other direction. The main problem might be that most meters are measuring radiation (in different forms), not isotopes. There is of course a large difference in long term health risk between a measurement from long-living isotopes and the same measurement from short-living isotopes. These measurements are primarily intended to measure the direct dose of people present at the site, not the spread of particles. But it’s definitely useful as a trend, and for an order-of-magnitude of the situation.

After all, smoke bypassing the measurement will also disperse before the particles it carries fall to the ground. That makes it highly unlikely that the concentration farther away is going to be worse, even if the gate measurement is not picking up everything.

Also, the NISA published on site air samples of the most important isotopes (Iodine and cesium), showing levels below or somewhat above the legal limit for a nuclear site. Enough that the workers have to wear gas masks right now, but not really dangerous without.

For now, the Japanese reports include explicit lists of people on-site who might be harmed. According to those lists, people are sometimes send to hospitals but then turn out not to be contaminated. Assuming they are not outright lying, that supports the measurements.

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Straightwood 03.21.11 at 5:05 pm

@173

The Black Swan analysis is applicable to nuclear power because it concerns low probability events of potentially very high impact that do not follow normal prediction models. Air traffic accidents are low probability, known impact events that do follow normal prediction models. That is why full insurance is available to all parties in air travel and it is not similarly available for nuclear power. In most of the world, governments limit the losses borne by nuclear plant operators because private insurers won’t cover all risks.

Black Swans are extremely annoying to experts of all sorts, and that is why Taleb’s book is so important. It describes a deliberate blindness to such events that clearly fits the nuclear power industry. The representation of AGW as a black swan seems quite muddled to me, since the theory is based on extrapolation of known historical correlations using sound models.

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ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 5:20 pm

Straightwood, I asked you about catastrophic global warming which has the same paucities you claim for nuclear.

Answer the damn question, and quit ducking.

I’m guessing that in point of fact, you have no statistical expertise, given your silence on the other questions you were specifically asked.

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Zamfir 03.21.11 at 5:22 pm

@Steve Labonne, the “nearly obsolete” will be thrown around a lot, but I wouldn’t put too much faith in it. Similar design in the US have been getting 20 years’ life extension. I have understood from people in the know that the US have made far more upgrades than the Japanese, but it is still the same base design.

The higher amount of upgrades in the US should not be surprising: US operators cannot realistically expect to build new plants, so life-time extensions are critical for them. Japanese operators could build newer plants, so their money went to newer plants with not too much left for the oldies.

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Chris Crawford 03.21.11 at 5:25 pm

Salient in #170 requests further information on the utility of the radiation meters at the gate. They are only quick-and-dirty measurements, because they record on radioactivity, not the kind, energy, or anything at all about the radionuclides at work. This means that those readings are in no wise definitive — they serve only to provide us with initial estimates. For example, iodine-131 has a half-life of 8 days, and is metabolically active, tending to concentrate in the thyroid, which it damages. If a reactor emits significant amounts of I-131 and people absorb it, then you’ll get some injury and death arising from that exposure. On the other hand, the risk decays pretty fast, so if you keep people away from a contaminated area and quarantine any leaf crops in the area, then the overall safety impact of I-131 can be kept quite low.

Cesium-137 is a more serious threat; it has a half-life of 30 years and does have some metabolic takeup, so it presents a long-term threat to human health. If significant amounts of Cesium-137 are released, then you’ve got a big safety problem.

One of the worst radionuclides that can be released is plutonium. This stuff is really nasty, with a fairly long half-life and very high carcinogenic effects if inhaled. Fortunately, there’s very little of it; we get significant amounts of it only in cases of major containment breaches.

On the other hand, there’s Nitrogen-13, with a half-life of ten minutes. There’s a goodly amount of this in the steam emitted by the “bleed and feed” techniques used in the days after the earthquake. It shows up in the gate readings but poses no threat to the public because it decays away before any of it can reach the public.

Thus, the gate readings include some radioactivity that’s harmless to the public, and some radioactivity that’s dangerous. Fortunately, there’s another quickie rule of thumb: the radioactivity from steam releases tends to be the less dangerous forms such as nitrogen 13, while the dangerous stuff is primarily in the particulate emissions from smoke from fuel rod oxidation. We had three instances of actual smoke (as opposed to steam) emissions, and while they definitely detected some iodine and cesium in the emissions, the amount detected was rather small. We don’t know for certain what burned in those fires: while there were certainly some particulate emissions from the fuel rods, these appear to have been small. Some of the smoke could have come from burning plastics and other non-radioactive sources. The biggest scare came when there was a huge spike in radioactivity during one of the fires; if it was due to a big rupture in a fuel rod, then we were in deep trouble. However, later analysis leads us to believe that the spike was due to a sudden steam release from the core of one of the reactors, not to the fuel rods.

So, what’s the bottom line? The data we have from the gate monitor (as well as from others) gives us our first estimate of the total amount of radioactivity released into the environment, and that result is very reassuring. The Japanese will continue to gather more and more data over the coming weeks and months, and the picture will be refined as we get better measures of specific radionuclides, especially cesium-137. Fortunately, our sensing equipment for this task is extremely sensitive; it’s very unlikely that there will be any hidden pockets of high radioactivity that are missed. It’s possible that they’ll find significant amounts of dangerous radionuclides, but this would conflict with the evidence we already have at hand.

I’ll stop here to digest some other postings.

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Zamfir 03.21.11 at 5:27 pm

@SoV, please leave the guy alone, as a favour? You guys disagree, and nothing is going to change that.

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Jake 03.21.11 at 5:38 pm

The representation of AGW as a black swan seems quite muddled to me, since the theory is based on extrapolation of known historical correlations using sound models.

This is what everyone says when someone throws a “Black Swan” accusation at them.

Actual research on your part would show that there are many feedback loops in the Earth’s climate that we are only just starting to become aware of, much less understand. How high does temperature have to rise to dramatically affect the current ocean circulation patterns? How much methane gets released from arctic permafrosts for a given increase in temperature? Or the from the methane clathrates on the bottom of the ocean? No one can say with absolute confidence that we aren’t about to cross some threshold in climate change that is going to make the earth uninhabitable.

We get that you are scared of nuclear power. That makes perfect sense – radiation is completely undetectable by normal human senses and can cause problems that only appear decades later, and nuclear reactors have a lot of subtle and dangerous behaviors that are completely outside the realm of normal human experience. Expecting people who have made more effort to understand what’s going on to agree with your fears, however, does not make sense.

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Chris Crawford 03.21.11 at 5:50 pm

Straightwood writes: Your pronouncement on the public health impact of the Fukushima accident is premature and ill-founded. What is the level of impact on the general public that would cause you to change your views on the safety of nuclear power generation?

No, it is not premature; it is a first estimate. Yes, it is imperfect, but it is unlikely that this first estimate is wildly off-base. Nor is it ill-founded; it is data, whose interpretation requires some care, but the foundation is solid. The complexities lie in the interpretation, not the data.

As to the level of impact required for me to change my views on nuclear power, I just follow the numbers. Right now, the numbers say “impact = 0.01 deaths”, which I consider to be very small. If the numbers end up saying “impact = 10,000 deaths”, then I would consider that to be a very large impact. The interpretation of any number is best made on a relative basis: comparing it with other safety numbers.

Zamfir writes in #172: The safety systems of some of the reactors failed completely, and had to be replaced by jury-rigged backups, like direct injections into the core, venting to the atmosphere and cooling by fire truck spray.

I think that you’re using a narrow definition of “safety system”. The overall safety strategy with reactors is not to achieve perfection, but to buy time so that other measures can be brought to bear as necessary. For example, the backup generators (which failed due to the tsunami) are not intended to provide power forever; it’s acknowledged that they’ll run out of fuel eventually. Similarly, the backup batteries are not intended to permit indefinite operation of the plant; their purpose is to provide some control for a period of 8 hours, which again provides time for other corrective measures to be applied. You can be quite certain that none of the measures taken, such as using fire trucks, was cooked up then and there; reactor safety measures are the subject of voluminous literature and, although I haven’t seen the literature on the use of fire trucks, I’m sure that the idea has been around for years. (There have been a lot of really weird ideas suggested over the years). Thus, the overall safety system consists of a great deal of stuff that isn’t actually on site during normal operations.

If you treat all those prefigured contingency schemes as part of the overall safety system, and you look at the bottom line (no dangerous amounts of radioactivity released to the environment), then you must come to the conclusion that the safety systems worked. We can get into semantic quibbles about whether a fire truck constitutes part of the safety system, but the bottom line remains the same: no dangerous amounts of radioactivity were released to the environment.

In #175, you mention that NISA has published some on-site air sample measurements — thanks! I’ll go look them up right now!

Straightwood in #176 writes: The representation of AGW as a black swan seems quite muddled to me, since the theory is based on extrapolation of known historical correlations using sound models.

The analysis of nuclear safety issues is also “based on extrapolation of known historical correlations using sound models.” Indeed, the reactor safety analyses are based on *more* historical data, *better* correlations, and *sounder* models. It is nonsensical to reject the nuclear safety calculations while embracing the climate change calculations.

Finally, I’d like to acknowledge an important point here: we really should not continue to build reactors using these ancient designs. We can do so much better with the newer designs. Thus, for policymaking purposes, we need to be arguing over the newer designs. I don’t think we have enough data yet to properly evaluate the new non-LWR designs, but the small modular LWRs just about to ship look very promising to me.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.21.11 at 6:02 pm

The uncertainties of climate change predictions don’t seem terribly relevant, though. I don’t think anyone here argues for fossil fuels; the disagreement is about the nuclear power: would you like to see 10 times the number of nuclear power stations a few decades from now, or would you rather invest all that cash into alternatives: solar, wind, etc? That’s the issue.

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Straightwood 03.21.11 at 6:15 pm

@177

Answer the damn question, and quit ducking.

Discussions like this are not games of postal chess. It is not evasiveness to be unable to locate what is asserted to be a crisply defined question upstream in a long discussion thread. Please clearly state this pressing question so that I may answer it properly.

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Chris Crawford 03.21.11 at 6:18 pm

Henri, if we did divert all capital intended for nuclear power plants into solar, wind, etc, then we’d have a lot less electricity. We’d have to spend a lot more on the renewable sources to make up the difference. I don’t have the numbers offhand but I can dig them up for you. Although there’s a lot of controversy surrounding these numbers, it’s safe to say that the renewable sources cost a lot more per gigawatt-year of electricity.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.21.11 at 6:26 pm

Divert to the R&D. If you decide today to build 5000 new nuclear stations by 2050, chances are you’re not going to spend much on better PVs, batteries, etc. Opportunity cost, and all that.

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Chris Crawford 03.21.11 at 6:42 pm

It’s certainly true that there are serious capital issues associated with nuclear power — indeed, this has always been my greatest concern. All the costs are upfront, so you pay a lot of money today to get almost-free electricity down the road. This would be a serious issue if we tried to build lots of nuclear power plants. Such an effort would drive up interest rates and deprive other industries of capital. At the moment, this is not a big problem, but any extended program of aggressive expansion of nuclear power would have some nasty economic side effects.

However, the problem is even *more* serious with renewable sources, which by definition rely entirely on capital expenditure. Thus, abandoning nuclear for renewable because of capital costs is definitely jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

I strongly endorse additional R&D into all renewable sources, but I don’t think that we need government money for *any* energy sources — the market is so obviously rich with potential that there’s plenty of investment money to develop any technology. I know a fellow who works for a big VC firm specializing in green technologies, and they have lots of interesting opportunities from which to choose.

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chris 03.21.11 at 6:58 pm

Since you are fond of the air travel risk analogy, I should point out that before the Hindenberg blew up, there was a solid six-year record of reliable long-distance Zeppelin passenger service. Had you been commenting at the time, I am sure that you would have defended the reliability of Zeppelin technology.

I’m morally certain that before posting this, Straightwood didn’t bother to calculate the actual fatalities per passenger-mile of the history of zeppelin travel, including Hindenberg… anybody know where there is enough data to do so? I’m just curious how it would, in fact, stack up to other transportation modalities, such as contemporary heavier-than-air, modern heavier-than-air, rail (contemporary or modern) or motorized ground.

I’d be shocked if it didn’t at least beat motorized ground, although you could argue that the horde of amateur drivers is largely responsible for the horrible safety record of our most common mode of transportation.

And this expansion of Straightwood’s example illustrates (again) the point that several other people have been trying to pin him (?) down on — whether or not the dangers of one energy source have to be evaluated in comparison to the dangers of other energy sources rather than in a vacuum.

Nuclear power technology and Homo Sapiens are a bad combination.

Also space shuttles, titanic ships of dubious iceberg-proof-ness, motorized ground vehicles, drugs intended to do whatever the heck thalidomide was intended to do… oh yeah, and releasing combustion products by the gigaton into the atmosphere.

Suddenly I’m having a vision of a distant ancestor of Straightwood’s claiming that this newfangled “fire” technology is unsafe for human use — after all, someone might carelessly leave an unsupervised fire burning somewhere and BURN US ALL. Of course, many people throughout history have indeed been burned by fire, and some even died of it. But does that prove that the adoption of fire (novel and frightening though it must have seemed at the time, to people not yet accustomed to it) was a net negative for our species? Even accounting for the possibility of catastrophic AGW (which is, after all, caused by an offshoot of fire technology), I think that would be a hard argument to make.

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Steve LaBonne 03.21.11 at 7:06 pm

I know a fellow who works for a big VC firm specializing in green technologies, and they have lots of interesting opportunities from which to choose.

Could you ask him why the number of new installations of wind power facilities in the US has fallen off a cliff? I saw this factoid recently and it troubles me. It makes me wonder whether it’s really true that significant progress can be made without major government involvement.

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Straightwood 03.21.11 at 7:07 pm

Suddenly I’m having a vision of a distant ancestor of Straightwood’s claiming that this newfangled “fire” technology is unsafe for human use

You will be pleased to know that I am not opposed to the use of fire for most purposes. You will be less pleased to know that the events at Fukushima have persuaded the German government to confirm the national policy of decomissioning all of their nuclear plants after their operational lifetime has ended. Evidently the temperamental and irrational Germans do not share your confidence in nuclear power technology.

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Steve LaBonne 03.21.11 at 7:13 pm

Evidently the temperamental and irrational Germans do not share your confidence in nuclear power technology.

The Germans have, in fact, displayed quite a lot of harmful irrationality about new technologies at various times. Recombinant DNA and genome sequencing being two that I happen to know about by virtue of my scientific background.

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Chris Crawford 03.21.11 at 7:20 pm

Steve asks in #189: Could you ask him why the number of new installations of wind power facilities in the US has fallen off a cliff?

I think I can hazard a pretty good guess: the economic problems of the last 30 months. Investment capital dried up overnight, and that dramatically changed the ROI calculations. Low interest rates are good for renewables, and high interest rates are bad for them.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.21.11 at 8:29 pm

@188 But does that prove that the adoption of fire (novel and frightening though it must have seemed at the time, to people not yet accustomed to it) was a net negative for our species?

Some ideas and projects, however, were considered and even initiated, and then later rejected. Turning Siberian rivers around, for example. Backyard steel furnace. Feeding cows remains of other cows.

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ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 9:04 pm

@SoV, please leave the guy alone, as a favour? You guys disagree, and nothing is going to change that.

I call bull-crap. And you know damn well it’s not his anti-nuke posturing that I’m objecting to.

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chris 03.21.11 at 9:05 pm

Some ideas and projects, however, were considered and even initiated, and then later rejected. Turning Siberian rivers around, for example. Backyard steel furnace. Feeding cows remains of other cows.

I’m not that familiar with the first two examples, but the last one was reversed not based on some nameless dread of cow cannibalism, but based on data-driven rational analyses of safety — exactly the same sort of studies Straightwood is pooh-poohing for nuclear because they don’t support his desired conclusion an unknown threat might be lurking just outside the range of our ability to detect it.

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chris 03.21.11 at 9:06 pm

Low interest rates are good for renewables, and high interest rates are bad for them.

Then what are zero interest rates? Either you wrote this sentence backwards or your explanation doesn’t explain what it’s supposed to.

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ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 9:11 pm

Actual research on your part would show that there are many feedback loops in the Earth’s climate that we are only just starting to become aware of, much less understand. How high does temperature have to rise to dramatically affect the current ocean circulation patterns? How much methane gets released from arctic permafrosts for a given increase in temperature? Or the from the methane clathrates on the bottom of the ocean? No one can say with absolute confidence that we aren’t about to cross some threshold in climate change that is going to make the earth uninhabitable.

Exactly. And this is why I’m getting exasperated with the guy: it’s pretty obvious he’s done no research on the subject (else he would – as you also point out – know AGW modeling of greenhouse emissions is on far shakier ground, and that catastrophic global warming isn’t just a matter of a few hundred million or a billion people dying; it’s more like the only life that survives doesn’t have a notochord.) He’s just doing the Frankfurtian bullshit thing where he simply declaring that AGW modeling is on surer footing and that AGW doesn’t have the degree of bad outcomes that nuclear has.

And the only reason he’s doing it is so that he can duck the question of why he doesn’t apply his black swan objections to other scenarios.

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ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 9:17 pm

The uncertainties of climate change predictions don’t seem terribly relevant, though. I don’t think anyone here argues for fossil fuels; the disagreement is about the nuclear power: would you like to see 10 times the number of nuclear power stations a few decades from now, or would you rather invest all that cash into alternatives: solar, wind, etc? That’s the issue.

They’re not relevant if you’re unwilling to apply black swan scenarios to the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

And that’s being inconsistent ;-)

In fact, worst-case scenarios have us over the edge already and even if all burning of fossil fuels were to cease today, you’d still end up with the tropics at or over 100 degrees C (i.e., the oceans boil.)

And you’re worried about a horribly bad accident with nuclear power that only kills 100 million people?

So yes, the burning of fossil fuels is terribly, terribly relevant in this case.

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Straightwood 03.21.11 at 9:20 pm

@195

When there is no clear means of predicting outcomes, decision making is a noisy and difficult process. The citizens of New York state decided to abandon a newly constructed nuclear plant in Shoreham in 1984 because it was not feasible to evacuate the residents of Long Island in case of disaster. The citizens of Germany elected a government in the year 2000 committed to ending nuclear power generation in that country by gradually retiring all the nuclear plants, and Chancellor Merkel has just confirmed this policy. I submit that these decisions would not have been made if nuclear power projects had the “white swan” characteristics of conventional power plants. These decisions were not lightly made, and they imposed heavy costs on taxpayers. I don’t think the events at Fukushima call these decisions into question.

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ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 9:25 pm

Discussions like this are not games of postal chess. It is not evasiveness to be unable to locate what is asserted to be a crisply defined question upstream in a long discussion thread. Please clearly state this pressing question so that I may answer it properly.

Really? You mean this question and it’s variants:

I have no idea what you’re on about with this one. I’m agreeing that CO2 emissions will raise temperatures. But not by five or even ten degrees. By fifty. That’s the black swan I’m talking about. And as you well know, the models are not all that accurate. In fact, time and again we’re treated to news releases about, say, glaciers retreating faster than anticipated.

So this mirrors your black swan claims about nuclear power, and the burden of proof is on you to show why this couldn’t happen, or why we shouldn’t stop burning fossil fuels today.

Do you want me to quote the other places where you’ve been asked? Or is this enough to refute your silly “you never told me what you wanted” whine?

Now, would you at long, weary last, stop ducking and answer the damn question.

And no, contrary to your research free assertion, AGW modeling is on far shakier ground than the modeling of nuclear accidents, and no, the worst-case scenario of AGW is far worse than a worst case nuclear accident scenario.

Now tell me why we shouldn’t – by your own criteria of black swans – stop burning all fossil fuels immediately. Like, in the next five minutes.

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Zamfir 03.21.11 at 9:39 pm

Straightwood, some posts ago you wondered when Chris would change his mind. I can’t speak for Chris, but I have been thinking about that al lot in the last days.

I started in nuclear engineering a few years ago, for no better reason than that the credit crisis destroyed all other jobs in industry. I like the job, but I wouldn’t call myself a serious proponent of nuclear power. IMO, we should build as much wind mills as the grid can take, then see what’s next. But you can’t be in the nuclear industry without explicitly endorsing it. One or two dozen people, especially from my parent’s generation, probably switched opinion on nuclear power because they trust me, and I told them it was safe.

This tuesday morning, I woke to find that there were pool fires and radiation measurements of 400 mSv per hour. It looked for a while like a seriously lethal accident. And I felt bad. We promised people this wouldn’t happen, and I personally told people so.

Since then, stuff looks better. The 400 milliSv was a local peak, not a sign of massive releases. I understand it is hard to believe, but “no one will die” is really a possible outcome now. Had I stayed in a previous job, aircraft with my work in it would be falling out of the sky once in a while, and I would have lived with. It’s weird to worry so much more about this.

For now, I am in dubio. These events show what many engineers must have always known: promises of perfectly functioning plants are nonsense. Stuff goes wrong, and everything that happened the last week were well-known risks that someone just didn’t want to pay yet more money for to guard against. On the other hand, they also show that fuel damage and radioactive releases are not necessarily the infinite disasters they had become in the public’s mind. The situation is as bad we feared it could get, and it’s actually a fairly run-of-the-mill industrial accident. It could get far worse, but even then we are talking less deaths than an airliner crash. In sense, Fukushima is pulling nuclear accidents out of the magic category of infinitely small odds of infinite badness, and into the real world where stuff happens but doesn’t end the world.

@Chris: the “safety systems” thing might just be different uses of the term. Around here, “safety systems” tends to refer to a pretty specific set of active systems that are supposed to be available in accident conditions. Structures are usually not part of them, let alone emergency mitigation measures like fire trucks. For PWRs, spraying the containment is a pretty straightforward cooling measure that I have seen mentioned before, but size makes a difference there.

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ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 9:40 pm

Let me make my point yet again about Straightwood’s style of arguing:

Since you are fond of the air travel risk analogy, I should point out that before the Hindenberg blew up, there was a solid six-year record of reliable long-distance Zeppelin passenger service. Had you been commenting at the time, I am sure that you would have defended the reliability of Zeppelin technology.

I’m morally certain that before posting this, Straightwood didn’t bother to calculate the actual fatalities per passenger-mile of the history of zeppelin travel, including Hindenberg… anybody know where there is enough data to do so?

I don’t know where you’d find the detailed numbers, but even a cursory search would show that zeppelins were considered extremely dangerous. In fact:

Eckener intended to supplement the successful craft by another, similar Zeppelin, projected as LZ 128. However the disastrous accident of the British passenger airship R101 on 5 October 1930 led the Zeppelin company to reconsider the safety of hydrogen-filled vessels, and the design was abandoned in favour of a new project. LZ 129 would advance Zeppelin technology considerably, and was intended to be filled with inert helium.

And why was hydrogen still used after it’s dangers were widely recognized?

On 4 March 1936, LZ 129 Hindenburg (named after former President of Germany Paul von Hindenburg by Eckener) made her first flight. The Hindenburg was the largest airship ever built. However, in the new political situation, Eckener had not obtained the helium to inflate it due to a military embargo; only the United States possessed the rare gas in usable quantities. So, in what ultimately proved a fatal decision, the Hindenburg was filled with flammable hydrogen. Apart from the propaganda missions, LZ 129 began to serve the transatlantic lines together with Graf Zeppelin.

Iow, no one was going around talking about completely unanticipated failure modes, contrary to what Straightwood tried to imply he had actually researched.

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Straightwood 03.21.11 at 9:41 pm

the burning of fossil fuels is terribly, terribly relevant in this case

Two black swans do not make a white one. Thus I don’t see how stopping construction of unsafe nuclear plans precipitates destruction of life through global warming. Reduction of demand, accelerated development of renewables, and – in extremis – atmospheric modification to mitigate greenhouse effects are all available options for controlling AGW. A putative AGW apocalypse can be connected to your next shopping decision as easily as it can be linked to the nuclear power issue, but you can see pictures of exploded reactor buildings at Fukushima in any newspaper.

If nuclear plants can be designed so as to be stable after a prolonged power outage, then they should be reconsidered. Until then, they remain risky bets with very large downside losses.

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ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 9:51 pm

Two black swans do not make a white one. Thus I don’t see how stopping construction of unsafe nuclear plans precipitates destruction of life through global warming. Reduction of demand, accelerated development of renewables, and – in extremis – atmospheric modification to mitigate greenhouse effects are all available options for controlling AGW.

You. Are. Not. Answering. The. Question.

It could be that we pass the threshold of greenhouse emissions for boiling the equatorial regions in the next six months. So why shouldn’t we stop burning all fossil fuels now, based upon your black swanning?

This isn’t a difficult question, nor do I think that I or any of a number of others who have asked you similar questions have been that unclear on what we were asking for.

Hey, you want to be anti-nuke has a matter of gut feeling and in the absence of data, that’s fine. We can, as Zamfir as suggested, agree to disagree. But don’t even pretend that your reasons and mine fall into the same category – that, as it were – experts disagree on the shape of the Earth. I’ve got facts, data, logic. You’ve got your gut. They are not remotely equivalent . . . and to pretend that they are is insulting to boot.

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Zamfir 03.21.11 at 9:53 pm

Then what are zero interest rates? Either you wrote this sentence backwards or your explanation doesn’t explain what it’s supposed to.
Zero interest rates are for short-term government debt, the highly liquid, low risk end of the spectrum. The credit crunch has not driven all interest to zero, it has driven a larger wedge between such money-like assets and more investment-like assets. So projects that rely on stable, long term capital are not seeing zero interest, far from it.

In a sense, it’s the rebound of the time before. Securitization, bundling, larger international scale were all promising to make liquid assets from the investments that used to be restricted to investors with a long time horizon and lots of domain-specific expertise. We’re now back in the old days, except perhaps worse for a while.

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Charlie 03.21.11 at 9:58 pm

Now, would you at long, weary last, stop ducking and answer the damn question.

Crikey. Is that an ultimatum?

If I’ve understood things correctly, you’re demanding that Straightwood, who by his (or her?) own admission is risk averse with respect to nuclear, must confront this other, terrible, terrible risk that the oceans might boil because of global warming. Because if Straightwood is against nuclear then he or she must be head in the sand with respect to global warming. That logically follows from being anti-nuclear, right?

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ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 10:03 pm

Crikey. Is that an ultimatum?

No, it’s not. Unless you mean that the “or else” stick is the fact that he will lose all credibility with me and that I will regard him as someone whose opinion is negligible.

So unless you really care that much what I think, no, it’s not an ultimatum.

If I’ve understood things correctly, you’re demanding that Straightwood, who by his (or her?) own admission is risk averse with respect to nuclear, must confront this other, terrible, terrible risk that the oceans might boil because of global warming. Because if Straightwood is against nuclear then he or she must be head in the sand with respect to global warming. That logically follows from being anti-nuclear, right?

No, you haven’t understood things correctly. Short answers to stupid questions and all that. Go back and reread the thread if you’re unclear about what these “black swans” are people keep going on about, and why they are relevant here.

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Charlie 03.21.11 at 10:12 pm

Unless you mean that the “or else” stick is the fact that he will lose all credibility with me and that I will regard him as someone whose opinion is negligible.

This could be the new mouseover text somewhere.

Seriously, I think perhaps you need to self-administer an ego check. If you mean to help the cause of nuclear power generation, it’ll take something other than this.

209

Straightwood 03.21.11 at 10:14 pm

Now tell me why we shouldn’t – by your own criteria of black swans – stop burning all fossil fuels immediately. Like, in the next five minutes.

The implicit assertion is that the only way to avoid the unknown risk of AGW apocalypse is to build nuclear power plants. This is not provable, since the substitution ratio of nuclear to conventional plant construction is unknown and the contribution of warming sources from other causes might overcome reductions from a total switch to nuclear power.

The black swan argument against nuclear plants is that there have been repeated instances in which plants have failed catastrophically despite expert assurances that this would not happen. Please understand that a black swan argument is not a pro-active argument; it is a declaration of unmanageable risk. Such a condition cannot serve as a motivator for investment or commitment. Rather it is a condition that should induce caution and reluctance to commit.

A good analogy to the nuclear issue is the disastrous outcome of the proliferation of financial derivatives. Although some argued that they were contributing to an unstable and dangerous global financial environment, most experts assured the public that they reduced risk. In the event, the experts were proved wrong, and the world’s financial system was nearly wrecked. Only extraordinary measures were able to restore stability.

210

ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 10:16 pm

Seriously, I think perhaps you need to self-administer an ego check. If you mean to help the cause of nuclear power generation, it’ll take something other than this.

What part of So unless you really care that much what I think, no, it’s not an ultimatum. don’t you get?

211

engels 03.21.11 at 10:19 pm

he will lose all credibility with me and that I will regard him as someone whose opinion is negligible

Oh, just another one of those?

212

ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 10:22 pm

Now tell me why we shouldn’t – by your own criteria of black swans – stop burning all fossil fuels immediately. Like, in the next five minutes.

The implicit assertion is that the only way to avoid the unknown risk of AGW apocalypse is to build nuclear power plants. This is not provable, since the substitution ratio of nuclear to conventional plant construction is unknown and the contribution of warming sources from other causes might overcome reductions from a total switch to nuclear power.

Is English a second language with you, or are you just looking for the tiniest fig leaf of deniability when it comes to pointing out you’re ducking.

For the record, I will now explicitly say that I am not suggesting that the only alternative to not burning fossil fuels is to go nuclear. I am only concerned with the consistency of your argument wrt black swans.

As are a good many other people, it seems.

Now will you answer the question? Or are you going to come up with another way to duck?

Frankly dude, I think most people know what you’re on about with this one and have similarly dim views of this type of behaviour. I’m just the one who’s willing to say it out loud.

213

PHB 03.21.11 at 10:24 pm

@Chris Crawford

You clearly have no common sense. The safety systems failed in this case. That is a fact that no amount of special pleading can evade.

It is this type of idiotic statement made by people posing as ‘experts’ that has given nuclear such a bad reputation. The nuclear industry never comes clean about its mistakes. Instead it lies and lies and then when finally the truth comes out through other routes it tries to spin.

Two of the containment vessels have fractured. That is not meant to happen even in a worst case scenario.

It is pretty clear that you would all still be spinning in favor of nuclear even if the pumps had not been restarted and the reactors were about to explode. It would require you to limit the scope of your argument even further, to find a new excuse, but you would learn absolutely nothing.

Japan is not a large island. They really cannot accomodate Chernobyl sized exclusion zones. They were assured that the mk 1 reactor design was safe, it turns out not to be.

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ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 10:24 pm

Oops:

Now tell me why we shouldn’t – by your own criteria of black swans – stop burning all fossil fuels immediately. Like, in the next five minutes.

The implicit assertion is that the only way to avoid the unknown risk of AGW apocalypse is to build nuclear power plants. This is not provable, since the substitution ratio of nuclear to conventional plant construction is unknown and the contribution of warming sources from other causes might overcome reductions from a total switch to nuclear power.

Is English a second language with you, or are you just looking for the tiniest fig leaf of deniability when it comes to pointing out you’re ducking.

For the record, I will now explicitly say that I am not suggesting that the only alternative to not burning fossil fuels is to go nuclear. I am only concerned with the consistency of your argument wrt black swans.

As are a good many other people, it seems.

Now will you answer the question? Or are you going to come up with another way to duck?

Frankly dude, I think most people know what you’re on about with this one and have similarly dim views of this type of behaviour. I’m just the one who’s willing to say it out loud.

215

Zamfir 03.21.11 at 10:31 pm

SoV, if you enjoy proclaiming the stupity of others, fine. But could you please do it over IM or so? It kills the threads.

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Jake 03.21.11 at 10:33 pm

The implicit assertion is that the only way to avoid the unknown risk of AGW apocalypse is to build nuclear power plants.

No, it’s not. Let’s assume that we shut down all nuclear power plants tomorrow and never build another. There’s a small chance that burning fossil fuels could put us over the edge into a positive feedback loop for runaway climate change and kill everyone on the planet. We’re confident that it’s a very small chance, but it’s certainly non-zero. What’s the argument for continuing to burn fossil fuels instead of falling back on solar, hydro, wind, and other renewables, and reducing our energy consumption to what we can provide using those power sources?

Is the argument that when you look at plausible guesses for the likelihood of catastrophic climate change and the benefits we get from burning fossil fuels today, that taking the risk seems worthwhile? That you can’t make decisions based on the absolute worst case and at some point have to take the best numbers you have, apply some correction for unknowns, and make a decision? How do you reconcile this with “Black Swan Theory”?

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ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 10:38 pm

Zamfir, I’m not saying he’s being stupid. I’m saying he’s refusing to answer the question. That in fact, he’s being creative and actively looking for all sorts of ways to not answer it. An entirely legitimate one, since he brought up the point himself.

Do you disagree? Do you think he has answered the question? If so, where has he done so? And if in fact he hasn’t answered the question, despite repeated calls to do so from multiple people, don’t you think he’s being just a teeny bit obnoxious?

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Chris Crawford 03.21.11 at 10:43 pm

I’m getting a little uneasy about the strong words being bandied about, so I’ll just make a quick observation and scuttle away:

Straightwood #209 points out the analogy between the expert’s assurances regarding nuclear power plant safety and the expert’s assurances regarding the stability of the financial system. It is in some ways a fitting analogy, although the consequences of the financial disaster greatly exceed those of the nuclear accident, both in terms of financial costs and human costs — the number of people who have committed suicide because of the recent financial woes is significant, and certainly many lives will be lost due to the additional stress imposed upon billions of people by the economic hard times.

This analogy would then suggest that the appropriate policy response to the economic disaster of 2008 is to banish complex financial instruments. Anybody for going back to the gold standard? Banning all securitization of loans? How about requiring stronger primary containment around bank reserves (by requiring higher reserve ratios)? Why stop there: eliminate the Fed!

Gee, this analogy works even better than I first imagined: think of all those central bank fire engines pumping hundreds of tons of cooling capital onto the raging fires of the collapse! The (anti-nuke) / (deficit hawks) demanding deep cuts in (nuclear power) / (govt spending)!

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Charlie 03.21.11 at 10:45 pm

What’s the argument for continuing to burn fossil fuels instead of falling back on solar, hydro, wind, and other renewables, and reducing our energy consumption to what we can provide using those power sources?

This is another attempt at burden shifting; it doesn’t do any better than the previous one. You don’t have to make an argument for burning fossil fuels in order to be anti-nuclear.

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Straightwood 03.21.11 at 10:45 pm

Now tell me why we shouldn’t – by your own criteria of black swans – stop burning all fossil fuels immediately. Like, in the next five minutes.

Have you read “The Black Swan?” The future is full of Black Swans, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Are you trying to discredit Taleb’s thesis, or are you trying to say it isn’t applicable to nuclear power. Let’s see:

1. Low probability, but high impact negative outcomes? Check.

2. Experts utilize simplistic assumptions and past experience to predict reliability? Check.

3. Experts fail to consider all contingencies in complex failure modes? Check.

4. Alarming failures occur despite assurances of very low probability of failure? Check.

It looks like a black swan to me. The proper response to a black swan scenario is to avoid investment exposure. This makes it an argument for avoiding further investments in current nuclear power technology. It is far from clear how best to invest so as to avoid an AGW black swan.

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ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 10:53 pm

Yep. And all of those points seem to apply to AGW as well – apparent small probability of bad outcomes with said outomes including the extinction of all vertabrate life, simplistic modeling (heck, climatologists will say that themselves), etc.

Just like for nuclear.

Now, would you at long last answer the question as to why you don’t apply this black swan reasoning to burning fossil fuels?

And why are you avoiding the question anyway? Other than the obvious reason.

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Charlie 03.21.11 at 10:58 pm

And WRT to ‘alarming failures’, I think it’s worth noting here that the consequences of Fukushima Daiichi going u/s include:

(i) A major reduction in Japan’s baseload capacity, which isn’t going to be replaced quickly,
(ii) The evacuation of a large area of habitable land, perhaps for years;
(iii) The condemning of agricultural produce produced on that land, perhaps for years.

Risk here isn’t only a matter of deaths / premature deaths.

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Straightwood 03.21.11 at 11:05 pm

Now, would you at long last answer the question as to why you don’t apply this black swan reasoning to burning fossil fuels?

I don’t apply “black swan reasoning” to burning fossil fuels because the connection between the magnitude of the activity and the black swan outcome is highly speculative. The black swan outcomes of nuclear power are in your local newspaper. Fukushima proved the experts wrong, just as the Hindenberg explosion proved the hydrogen lift experts wrong. (Hindenberg’s precursor airship, Graf Zeppelin, was also hydrogen-filled and never exploded. Here are the passenger statistics of this fine product of German engineering:

# First flight: September 18, 1928
# Final flight: June 18, 1937
# Total flight hours: 17,177
# Total flights: 590
# Total people carried: 34,000
# Paying passengers carried: 13,110
.

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Charlie 03.21.11 at 11:38 pm

Anyway, thinking about this a bit, doesn’t Fukushima-Daiichi fail to be a Taleb-style black swan in that it’s no surprise to anyone who understands what happened at Three Mile Island?

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ScentOfViolets 03.21.11 at 11:48 pm

I don’t apply “black swan reasoning” to burning fossil fuels because the connection between the magnitude of the activity and the black swan outcome is highly speculative.

My jaw just hit the floor with that one. Models for AGW outcome are if anything worse than models for nuclear accidents. Ditto for the possible consequences.

Yet the effects of AGW are “highly speculative” (irony alert – just what the experts supposedly say before a black swan hits), the consequences of nuclear accidents much less so. Note that Straightwood also fails to give any evidence for this claim, it’s just something he feels in his gut, i.e., he’s still refusing to answer the question by denying the premise, as Ayn Rand would say.

Oh, and btw:

However there is stronger evidence that runaway methane clathrate breakdown may have caused drastic alteration of the ocean environment and the atmosphere of earth on a number of occasions in the past, over timescales of tens of thousands of years; most notably in connection with the Permian extinction event, when 96% of all marine species became extinct 251 million years ago.[5]

But who cares about what happens a thousand years from now? There might be a nuclear accident that kills upwards of a 100,000 people before then.

And this is just one possible scenario. There are others.

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ajay 03.21.11 at 11:51 pm

the consequences of Fukushima Daiichi going u/s include:

(i) A major reduction in Japan’s baseload capacity, which isn’t going to be replaced quickly,
(ii) The evacuation of a large area of habitable land, perhaps for years;
(iii) The condemning of agricultural produce produced on that land, perhaps for years.

[citation needed]

227

Jake 03.22.11 at 12:04 am

How about this: a lot of the concern around Fukushima-Daiichi is related to the spent fuel rods kept in pools in the reactor building. When the reactors were designed the assumption was that spent fuel would stay in the storage pool for a few months so some of the hotter isotopes could decay and would then be sent off for reprocessing. Proliferation concerns lead the US to ban reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in the 70s. The next plan was to put the spent fuel in dry casks and bury it under Yucca Mountain. Safety concerns about transporting spent nuclear fuel across the country and local opposition prevented Yucca Mountain from becoming operational. As a result the fuel storage pools at American reactors hold way more spent fuel than they were designed for, increasing the risk of catastrophe in a situation similar to that taking place in Japan. What to do?

228

Charlie 03.22.11 at 12:19 am

Ajay, don’t be bloody silly. The plant has gone offline: 4.7 GW of capacity is a commonly seen figure for the lost capacity. And it’s gone offline forever: the Japanese government has said so, and have you seen the pictures? The current evacuation zone is a big bite out of the east side of Honshu. Every news web site has a map of it. Foodstuffs from certain areas are currently condemned, and it’s not like the Japanese have a surplus of arable producing land. I’m sure this state of affairs won’t continue for any longer than it has to – many people will just swallow the risk and move back, most likely – but you have to admit these are non-negligible downsides. You wouldn’t expect them from a gas generating plant. I suspect hydro is the only other sort of power generation that presents comparable risks.

229

Ryan 03.22.11 at 12:19 am

Straightwood:
I suppose what I am a bit frustrated with is that saying “Black Swan” really doesn’t do much analytic work. Do you want to then say that, in general, for processes that have very low probability, but very bad downsides, we should do everything in our power to ban them? Or do you mean they should be held up to extra scrutiny? Or do you mean that cost-benefit analysis no longer works in these cases?

I take it that I and some others have tried to argue the following:
1. There are several low-probability, severely bad outcomes that we can point to outside of nuclear power generation.
2. You do not seem to want to apply the same framework to those.
3. Yet you insist on using it for nuclear.
4. This suggests that there is some other reason, namely some arational discomfort with nuclear power, that is driving your reasoning.

In post number 203, you note that you’d be more sympathetic to nuclear if designs existed that did not require power for their safety systems. But implicitly suggest that these do not exist. However, in previous posts I’ve mentioned several such designs. One that is (as I understand it) in the final stages of regulatory approval is the Toshiba 4S reactor design. It’s essentially a big battery. Its safety systems are all passive – they do not require exterior power, a water source, or anything like that. I’ve also mentioned Traveling Wave Reactors, which have the virtue of largely running on depleted uranium, which is currently a waste product. TWR designs could run on existing waste and be sufficient for 1000 or so years of power for the world. These two are designed with passive safety in mind.

I also find it a bit frustrating that you use the word “catastrophe” in a way that is rhetorically useful, but again, not very analytically useful. Three Mile Island was a “catastrophe” in the sense that it was a serious industrial accident, but in no way a catastrophe in that no one got sick or died as a result of it. Nor were radiation levels ever higher than what coal plants expose us to during their normal operation. Fukushima is likewise a terrible situation, but again, it’s looking like the public costs from that are going to be extremely small. Chernobyl, I am completely comfortable calling a catastrophe. Lots of people died or got sick from it, and there is a large exclusion zone. But no one is claiming that Chernobyl was a minor incident, nor is anyone endorsing anything remotely like a Chernobyl reactor design.

So, in the hopes that the conversation might become more productive, perhaps you can lay out what you have in mind for a general cost-benefit analysis for power generation? As I’ve mentioned several times, in my mind the closest substitution to nuclear is coal, and I find coal to be unacceptable in its casualty rate per unit energy. Even just mining practice is bad enough to me that I’d rather us find something else to use, but once you also factor in the huge health and environmental problems created by burning coal, it is clear to me that our priority should be eliminating (or at least heavily curtailing) coal power. I am more than happy to encourage research and capital purchasing of solar, or wind, or biogas (which in my mind is quite viable on large-scale farms). Ideally this would be funded through a carbon tax of some kind. But as I’ve mentioned before, these sources of power are complements, not substitutes for, baseload power generation. And nuclear does this well – at lower environmental costs than things like hydroelectric, and on a much smaller land footprint than wind or solar.

That said, do I want us to build more light water reactors? Not really. Not because I think they are awful, but because I think better alternatives exist, namely Traveling Wave Reactors and the Toshiba 4S design.

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Straightwood 03.22.11 at 12:21 am

@225

I am trying to stay with you, SoV, but you don’t seem to be reading what I post:

“I don’t apply “black swan reasoning” to burning fossil fuels because the connection between the magnitude of the activity and the black swan outcome is highly speculative.”

You read this as my saying the effects of AGW are “highly speculative”

Do you see the problem?

231

Charlie 03.22.11 at 12:24 am

If you insist on it, here’s a link to Edano talking about the future of FD. He does leave himself some scope for a U-turn. Practically, I suppose they might go with reactivitating 5 and 6. I’d be amazed if any of 1-4 run again.

232

Ryan 03.22.11 at 12:31 am

Charlie:

You do realize that the evacuation zone is temporary and precautionary, right? This isn’t a nuclear dead zone. The radiation levels are not very high outside of the facility. And the vast majority of the isotopes being released in the steam have a half-life of about 10 minutes. Not a long-term worry at all.

The food contamination is also a temporary worry. The spinach and milk have small levels of iodide isotopes, which have a half life of something like 8 days. These levels, while well above safety regulations, if accidentally consumed by an adult, won’t do much harm. Again, smart of regulators to quarantine the food, but this is not a long-term problem of spoiled farmland. This is more like missing out on one growing season, if you’re being super overcautious. Gulf seafood are more at risk from oil than spinach is from this, given a month’s time.

I agree that losing the baseload capacity is bad, and represents a medium-term problem. But remember, there was just a hugely massive earthquake and enormous tsunami that flooded a lot of equipment. Had a coal plant been there it’s not at all clear that it would be fully operational. (And if it were, people in the surrounding areas would have a lot more health problems than they do now)

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Straightwood 03.22.11 at 12:32 am

1. There are several low-probability, severely bad outcomes that we can point to outside of nuclear power generation.

I would be happy to elaborate on my views on such topics, but I don’t recall any that were comparable to nuclear power. Civil aviation is certainly not comparable. Did you have other black swan candidates in mind?

In post number 203, you note that you’d be more sympathetic to nuclear if designs existed that did not require power for their safety systems. But implicitly suggest that these do not exist. However, in previous posts I’ve mentioned several such designs.

I am unfamiliar with the characteristics of the alternate reactor designs you have mentioned. If, indeed, they are fail-safe in a plant blackout scenario, they deserve consideration. Prior to Fukushima, I was pro nuclear power, mainly because of my ignorance of the need for continuous cooling of the plant, even in a fully shut-down condition.

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Charlie 03.22.11 at 12:44 am

You do realize that the evacuation zone is temporary and precautionary, right?

I don’t think ‘realize’ is the word you want. You can’t predict the evolution of an ongoing accident – or the Japanese government’s response to it – any better than I can. But I’d guess that it’ll be temporary, yes.

This isn’t a nuclear dead zone. The radiation levels are not very high outside of the facility. And the vast majority of the isotopes being released in the steam have a half-life of about 10 minutes. Not a long-term worry at all.

That’s very confidently said. I’d want more data before I ventured to say that I knew that. Where are your sample sites? How much testing do you plan, and what sort of testing? Perhaps the Japanese people who’ll be moving back will get adequate data, perhaps they won’t. There’s an effort at a home-brew radiation monitoring network that looks interesting, whether or not it can do anything genuinely useful I don’t know.

235

PHB 03.22.11 at 12:44 am

Scent of Violets reads the data on wind power and draws the exact wrong conclusion.

The US wind program had three poor quarters in 2010, but in Q4 they added over 3000 MW or about the equivalent of a boiling water nuclear plant, matching their best quarter before that. That looks more likely to be the result of the recession rather than a trend.

Regardless, that is two nuclear plant equivalents for wind power in 2010 versus precisely zero nuclear plants in 2010. And we can be pretty confident that there will be exactly zero nuclear plants constructed for the next decade.

Since nuclear is dead and carbon fuels face the expectation of carbon taxes at some future date, that leaves renewables as the only game left in town with wind the technology most ready for prime time.

It would take only a fairly modest increase in US deployment of wind power for there to be more wind capacity in the US than nuclear by 2025.

Once Cape Wind is built it will be relatively straightforward to duplicate: The US has plenty of coastline and most of the population lives near it. And at only twice the price of carbon generated electricity, it is a bargain.

Only shame about Cape Wind is that Ted Kennedy is not there to see it.

I am pretty sure that in the wake of Fukushima, there would be quite a few people round here who would be willing to see a Pilgrim shut down and replaced by a couple more cape winds.

236

Ryan 03.22.11 at 12:50 am

Straightwood:

I believe the relevant candidates that have been mentioned are:
1. Oil refining, which leaves us exposed to potential poison gas clouds in the form of benzene and hydroflouric acid, to name 2 chemicals associated with the refining process with nasty effects for humans. Refineries are not regulated nearly as much as nuclear plants, and so are much more vulnerable to earthquakes, terrorist attacks, or even human error. The oil industry also has a lousy safety record.
2. Rapid climate shifts created by positive feedback loops that we understand poorly, caused by burning fossil fuels
3. Oil drilling, which leaves us exposed to events like the Deepwater Horizon accident, which was only the worst case in the US, but not nearly the worst in the world.
4. Hydroelectric dams, which also have a fairly high casualty rate, and occasionally truly awful disasters, which have killed tens of thousands of people at a time. These are vulnerable to the same sorts of attacks or bad weather/geological events that nuclear plants are. And historically have killed more people than nuclear.

I’m sure there are others that we haven’t mentioned, but those are the ones that have been raised thus far in the discussion.

237

Charlie 03.22.11 at 12:56 am

On sample sites, here are the Japanese authorities’ current sites (.pdf: scroll to the map that follows the table of readings). A lot more than for the last few days, which is encouraging, but not an even coverage. Perhaps there’s a method to it (they’re focussing on population centres?), I don’t know.

238

Chris Crawford 03.22.11 at 1:03 am

I was hoping to bow out of this discussion but there have been some seriously incorrect statements that I feel a need to correct. Among them:

Safety concerns about transporting spent nuclear fuel across the country and local opposition prevented Yucca Mountain from becoming operational.

This is correct in the sense that uninformed members of the public had safety concerns. The technology for transporting spent fuel safely has been around for decades. Basically, it’s just big heavy steel casks. Really hard nuts to crack, those.

2. Experts utilize simplistic assumptions and past experience to predict reliability? Check.

Straightwood should read through some of the volumes and volumes of analytical material before dismissing it all as “simplistic”.

Charlie’s assertions about the evacuation zones suggest that these zones might be unsafe for some period of time. This is not true; any person who had remained in that zone for the last ten days would not have been exposed to significant amounts of radioactivity. As has already been pointed out several times, the evacuation zone was a precaution against a large release of radioactivity, which in the event never took place.

The use of the “black swan” argument strikes me as merely a ploy to evade a direct examination of costs and benefits. In effect, “black swan” is mumbo-jumbo for “bad”. To apply that label, and then use the label to declare the technology unacceptable, is sophistry. If nuclear power technology is undesirable, it should be possible to explain why it is undesirable without resorting to such indirect methodology.

Moreoever, I find the black swan argument morally repugnant, as it trivializes human suffering. If over the course of a decade, one million people die because of insufficient food supplies, their deaths are in no wise less worthy of our consideration than the spectacular deaths of one million people in a catastrophe. The proper measure for consideration is human suffering, not spectacle. If a nuclear accident ever were to generate large numbers of casualties and great economic losses, its impact must be directly compared, dollar for dollar, tear for tear, and body for body, with any other causal factor that causes human suffering. People have a huge blind spot for mundane suffering. The real death-dealing in the West Bank is not Israelis shooting Palestinians, but the steady stream of deaths due to boring causes, such as Palestinians with treatable ailments dying because they can’t get through the roadblocks to medical care quickly enough.

239

Ryan 03.22.11 at 1:05 am

PHB: I don’t think anyone is advocating that wind and solar (or geothermal or wave, for that matter) power are not desirable. I’d be a lot more comfortable with them being replacements for coal power, given how awful coal is. What I would be very interested in knowing, however is if there have been enough advances where wind or wave power could be suitably constant level that raising the amount of it we have on the power grid would not create a lot of problems with power fluctuations. Solar obviously can’t serve this function without huge advances in power storage, but I’d be very interested to know if wind is considered suitable now for baseload power, particularly if it somehow were able to ramp up to 20% of the generating capacity of the US, as you suggest. If so, fantastic. I would love to just use wind power. But I was under the impression that it creates serious problems for the power grid if we were to do this.

Of course, you gloss over the problem that people who tend to own beachfront property don’t much like having their view obstructed by windmills, but I don’t have much sympathy for their arguments.

240

ScentOfViolets 03.22.11 at 1:05 am

“I don’t apply “black swan reasoning” to burning fossil fuels because the connection between the magnitude of the activity and the black swan outcome is highly speculative.”

You read this as my saying the effects of AGW are “highly speculative”

Rephrase then: the magnitude of the effects of AGW are “highly speculative”. What are their effects and their magnitude that is “highly speculative”? How do you know this? What sort of research have you done on the matter?

Evidently, not very much. You also seem to think you get to declare what is “highly speculative” and what is not by fiat.

It doesn’t work that way. Further, it suddenly occurs to me that you really don’t know what a black swan event is. Here’s the wiki:

The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain:

1. The disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance and technology
2. The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods(owing to the very nature of small probabilities)
3. The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs

Check out the bolded bits. Now tell me why this stuff about high-impact global warming is not a black swan affair. By your own definitions, in fact.

241

ScentOfViolets 03.22.11 at 1:08 am

Scent of Violets reads the data on wind power and draws the exact wrong conclusion.

I have absolutely no idea what you are on about.

242

Charlie 03.22.11 at 1:13 am

Charlie’s assertions about the evacuation zones suggest that these zones might be unsafe for some period of time.

I think you misunderstand me. The evacuation zone exists as a matter of Japanese government policy: people have been told to leave. So the downside of an evacuation zone exists whether or not the zone is, in fact, safe. You might want to tell the Japanese government and people to stop being such silly ninnies but the zone exists.

Now personally, I happen to think there’s a moral obligation to give the people who are expected to move back into the zone – once it’s declared safe, whenever that might be – reasonable assurance that it is safe. This, to me, means good data. I also think the nuclear power generating industry will also do itself a big favour if it provides good, consistent, systematic data.

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ScentOfViolets 03.22.11 at 1:17 am

The use of the “black swan” argument strikes me as merely a ploy to evade a direct examination of costs and benefits. In effect, “black swan” is mumbo-jumbo for “bad”. To apply that label, and then use the label to declare the technology unacceptable, is sophistry. If nuclear power technology is undesirable, it should be possible to explain why it is undesirable without resorting to such indirect methodology.

That is exactly right (and incidentally, what I was referring to with my sarcasm in regards to Taleb as some sort of expert on this sort of thing.)

So because black swan arguments are essentially mumbo-jumbo (did no one get my little word-play with the term? Or is this just a tough room?), the best you can do is apply consistency checks to see if this argument is really applied fairly.

And if it turns out that black swan country is “whatever I say it is” . . .

I think it’s been pretty well established that in the case of the black swan here, it is indeed, “whatever I say it is”.

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PHB 03.22.11 at 1:19 am

Ryan

You do realize that the evacuation zone is temporary and precautionary, right? This isn’t a nuclear dead zone.

You think that makes it OK?

The Fukushima reactor has already more than exceeded the level of nuisance that would be tolerated from any other industry. At a time of national crisis the first priority of the national and local government has been to run an emergency power line out to a nuclear reactor. The reactor has required the national government to focus on preventing a third catastrophe when it is already trying to deal with the earthquake and the tsunami.

The evacuation of the people is taking place at a time when the emergency infrastructure is already stretched. Industry is shut down, commerce is shut down, schools are shut down.

Even in the unlikely event that there are no more deaths due to the failure of the plant safety systems, the events have inflicted psychological trauma on several million people and that is itself a major health issue.

We have no idea when the emergency will come to an end. The reactors will be generating many MW of heat for years to come. There is no way to know when the process of making the storage pools or reactor cores safe can even begin. The hydrogen explosions have probably destroyed the cranes and other handling infrastructure. It may be months before we even have an idea of how long the process will take.

No, this is not OK.

Nuclear Power cannot claim no harm no foul on this one. It was a US designed reactor, the safety measures have failed, the containment vessel has failed and only heroic action on the part of the plant operators has averted a meltdown.

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Chris Crawford 03.22.11 at 1:27 am

Charlie, my point concerns your suggestion that the land in question might not be usable for months or years. The fact that the Japanese government mandated the evacuation in no wise suggests that they will maintain that mandate indefinitely. The most reasonable prediction for us to make is that people will return to the land once the various measurements of radioactivity levels have ascertained that it is safe to return. All the evidence we currently have from the power plant itself suggest that those radioactivity levels will be found to be negligible. Sure, I can’t prove that. But you have absolutely nothing in the way of evidence that radioactivity levels will be found to be dangerously high. Right now, the evidence suggests that the land is already safe and people will be returning quite soon. If new evidence arises to counter the evidence we now have, then we can alter our assessment. And I agree with you that there should be due diligence in checking those radioactivity levels. But again, there’s simply no foundation for any claim that the land has become unusable.

Regarding wind power: I don’t think it fair to casually dismiss a doubling of electricity prices as a bargain, as PHB does in #235. While I am generally in favor of higher prices as both a means of reducing waste and a way to make renewables cost-effective (and I favor a strong carbon tax), I’m not about to impose such a burden on our economy, nor do I think it fair to impose such costs on people who don’t share my opinion. Moreover, the discussion of wind power is every bit as complex as the discussion of nuclear power, because there are tricky issues with baseload, power transmission over long distances, and capacity factors. A gigawatt of wind capacity will be nowhere near as useful to us as a gigawatt of nuclear capacity. Ironically enough, wind capacity is most economically attractive when combined with nuclear capacity.

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Ryan 03.22.11 at 1:33 am

PHB:
Again, all I insist on is that nuclear power is compared to relevant alternatives. I agree, requiring evacuation is not nothing. But the claim was that it was a long-term evacuation, which it isn’t. Also, I agree that there is mental anguish associated with these incidents, which are real health concerns. I would note, however, that this mental anguish is made worse, not better, when people insist on exaggerating the harms by lumping together Three Mile Island with Chernobyl. One killed a lot of people, the other didn’t make anyone sick.

That said, what I would like to do is ask that we compare these very real costs of nuclear power (evacuation, mental anguish, some food quarantine) compared to the known, every day costs of operating its closest substitute, which is coal power. So with coal, we have an expected regular casualty rate, year after year, for normal operation. With nuclear, with have exceedingly rare chances of a Three Mile Island or Fukushima, and normal operation with no casualties or health risks imposed on everyone else. What I am claiming is that the nuclear power option is on the whole better than the coal power option, not that nuclear has no downsides.

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Straightwood 03.22.11 at 1:38 am

Check out the bolded bits. Now tell me why this stuff about high-impact global warming is not a black swan affair. By your own definitions, in fact.

I don’t contest that AGW catastrophe is a black swan outcome. What I object to is any actionable connection between building more or fewer nuke plants and that outcome. You might as well tie the usage of styrofoam cups to the AGW black swan as nuclear power.

I can, however, directly tie the construction of boiling water nuclear plants to Fukushima-type black swan outcomes. This is the crucial difference. If we do not build hundreds more nuke plants, there is some unknown probability that this will contribute to an AGW catastrophe. But there are countless other crash programs we might undertake that have some unknown probability of averting an AGW apocalypse. By contrast, a nuke plant that is not built is 100% certain not to melt down.

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Charlie 03.22.11 at 1:38 am

The fact that the Japanese government mandated the evacuation in no wise suggests that they will maintain that mandate indefinitely. The most reasonable prediction for us to make is that people will return to the land once the various measurements of radioactivity levels have ascertained that it is safe to return.

No, I think there are two conditions that will have to be met. The first condition is that the evacuation zone is reasonably free from radioactive material. The second condition is that there is a low risk of further release of radioactive material from the plant: ‘re-containment’ if you like. When will the Japanese government decide that those conditions are credibly met? Are they going to attempt to build an enclosure over reactors 1-4 first, say? That could take a while.

And I agree with you that there should be due diligence in checking those radioactivity levels. But again, there’s simply no foundation for any claim that the land has become unusable.

The evacuation zone is unusable de jure for as long as it remains an official evacuation zone. So right now, it’s unusable. And would remain so even if there were reasonable grounds for saying that the authorities were being over-cautious in maintaining it.

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Chris Crawford 03.22.11 at 1:44 am

The Fukushima reactor has already more than exceeded the level of nuisance that would be tolerated from any other industry.

Nuisance? Is that a logical basis for policymaking? Wouldn’t it be equally fair to say that the news media have created the nuisance with their hyperbolic stories?

The reactor has required the national government to focus on preventing a third catastrophe when it is already trying to deal with the earthquake and the tsunami.

Actually, it’s the uneducated panic about radioactivity that forces the government’s hand here. If the public hadn’t been stampeded by scaremongering news media, the government would not have needed to spend much time on it at all. The physical reality is that there never was much danger. It’s the political reality that the government is reacting to, not they physical reality. Besides, the total resource devoted to the Fukushima situation is tiny: only a few hundred workers. Meanwhile, the Japanese have deployed more than 100,000 soldiers and emergency workers to the tsunami-stricken areas.

The evacuation of the people is taking place at a time when the emergency infrastructure is already stretched. Industry is shut down, commerce is shut down, schools are shut down.

I think that you’re overstating the magnitude of the problems. Yes, the coastal areas of northeastern Japan are devastated. But Japan is a big country, and despite all the news stories about devastation, (and except for the rolling blackouts) the big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe are operating normally. The news media don’t ever tell you that things are normal; they tell you about abnormal things.

Even in the unlikely event that there are no more deaths due to the failure of the plant safety systems,

On what basis do you claim that further deaths are unlikely? What numbers do you have for radiation exposure of the public?

the events have inflicted psychological trauma on several million people and that is itself a major health issue.

Does the blame for this fall on the reactor operators or on the media that have grossly distorted the nature of the situation in order to make a profit? Had the media simply presented the facts that were made available by the government and the reactor operator, there would have been no stress and no panic. Instead, the media inundated us with stories about what *might* happen — which never *did* happen.

We have no idea when the emergency will come to an end.

That depends entirely upon how you define the term “emergency”. By my definition, the emergency ended eight days ago when they started pumping seawater into the reactors. That was the point at which uncertainty regarding a major release of radioactivity was eliminated. I can understand how a person who doesn’t have information on how these machines operate could believe that the emergency is ongoing. But that lack of information doesn’t make such a person right, it merely means that they are uninformed.

the safety measures have failed,
I have already explained that in fact the safety systems were successful. If you have evidence that they did not, please provide that evidence.

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Chris Crawford 03.22.11 at 1:54 am

No, I think there are two conditions that will have to be met. The first condition is that the evacuation zone is reasonably free from radioactive material. The second condition is that there is a low risk of further release of radioactive material from the plant: ‘re-containment’ if you like.

I would argue that both conditions have already been met. The evidence we now have suggests that only tiny amounts of radioactivity were released. And there have been no serious releases of radioactivity for four days now. Strictly speaking, then, your conditions have been met. However, I consider the downside of waiting a week to get additional data is so low as to make it a prudent course of action. The Japanese government will probably wait two or three weeks — and I suspect that this delay will have more to do with psychological considerations than radiological ones.

If we do not build hundreds more nuke plants, there is some unknown probability that this will contribute to an AGW catastrophe. But there are countless other crash programs we might undertake that have some unknown probability of averting an AGW apocalypse. By contrast, a nuke plant that is not built is 100% certain not to melt down.

Good lord, Duns Scotus would have been proud of you! Might I suggest that the very convolutedness of your argument is evidence of its sophistry?

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PHB 03.22.11 at 1:58 am

Ryan,

Actually ScentOfViolets makes bizarre claims about the impossibility of various renewable sources with crackpot arguments all the time. At one point he was trying to lecture on the impossibility of extracting enough rare earth metals to make solar panels until he got schooled by the guy who trades about half the global supply of the metal in question.

As for the storage issue, it does not matter quite as much as people imagine until the proportion of wind gets up to 20% or so and that will take us some time. Wind only costs about twice as much as conventional and that is on the basis of a fairly short return on capital. If the projects are evaluated assuming a 30 year lifetime they start to look rather cheap.

If the US was to cancel the F35 lightning it could buy about 400 Cape Winds over the lifetime of the aircraft ($350B procurement + $650B running = $1T). and unlike the plane, the US would get a return on the investment.

Replacement of carbon fuels with wind is most attractive of course, but replacing base load requires either the storage problem or the distribution/scheduling problem to be addressed. They are fungible to some degree but obviously there has to be some storage component. Smart grid and the ability to off peak high energy demand appliances also helps.

It would certainly be a much easier problem to address if use of nuclear was still practical. As I said at the start of this thread, there are nuclear power designs that are genuinely ‘passive safe’ but I am a realist and in the wake of Fukushima, I see absolutely no chance of any of those designs being deployed. I see a higher chance of a Palin-Trump ticket being elected President of the US than of a new nuclear plant being built in the US in the next decade.

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Straightwood 03.22.11 at 2:09 am

Your candidates for comparison to nuclear power as equivalent Black Swans are:

1. Oil refining
2. Rapid climate shifts
3. Oil drilling
4. Hydroelectric dams
.
1. Oil refinery disasters are fully remediable. Even the worst refinery explosion can be cleaned up much more easily than a nuke plant meltdown. (The Three Mile Island cleanup cost about $900 million and took 12 years.) Oil refining is absolutely essential to modern civilization, and there is no substitute technology. Oil refineries can be insured without any government guarantees, an indicator of manageable risk.

2. Rapid climate shifts. This is an outcome, not a candidate Black Swan technology. If the risk target is thermal power generation, there are many alternative technologies aimed at reducing the impact of coal, oil, and gas-fired power plants, including carbon sequestration, energy conservation, and renewables. We simply don’t know how sensitive the AGW effects are to the volume of CO2 generated by current and future power plants. There is no calculus for offsetting AGW risks with nuclear power risks.

3. Oil drilling. I would argue that high-risk offshore drilling is roughly comparable to nuclear power in posing Black Swan type risk and huge remediation costs, but not all oil drilling is offshore. So, yes, I would have the same objections to high-risk offshore oil drilling as I have to conventional nuclear power plants.

4. Hydroelectric dams. I am unaware of any hydroelectric dams that have failed catastrophically. A few hundred lives have been lost over the last century in small dam failures in the USA. These were all fully remediable situations, inflicting no huge cleanup costs comparable to a nuclear disaster. There are no functional alternatives to dams; there are functional alternatives to nuclear power.

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Chris Crawford 03.22.11 at 2:23 am

PHB, I would enthusiastically trade military spending for domestic spending, but your argument definitely gets us into apples-and-oranges territory. The issue is not whether we trade military spending for wind, but whether we trade nuclear power plant spending for wind power plant spending.

You raise an interesting point, though, regarding the political realities. Political realities arise from uninformed perception, not hard truth. The hard truth, as has been demonstrated by the Fukushima accident (and uncontested here) is that the evidence points towards a triumphant demonstration of the success of nuclear power plant safety systems. I emphasize, that’s the hard reality derivable from the evidence we now have. Perhaps some contradictory evidence will arise later. But for now, that’s the reality we have in our hands. Yet the political reality is, I agree, that nuclear power has suffered a fatal blow. But this raises the question: what is our responsibility as citizens? Are we to rubber-stamp the opinions of an ignorant majority? If I as a citizen possess sufficient information to gainsay the majority, do I have a responsibility to do so? To what extent must we acquiesce to the majority when we know that it is wrong.

I’m not raising the issue of the propriety of majority rule. Yes, if the majority decides to elect Sarah Palin as our next president, then I will readily acknowledge her right to exercise the powers of that office, and the political propriety of her holding that office. After all, selection of a politician is ultimately a subjective matter. But I’m talking about matters of objective truth here, not subjective perception. The majority of citizens believe that the Fukushima accident demonstrates the danger of nuclear power, when any informed observer must reach the opposite conclusion. How do we resolve this conundrum?

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Ryan 03.22.11 at 2:25 am

Straightwood:

1. Oil refinery disasters that I’m pointing to (an explosion in a benzene tank or in a hydroflouric acid tank) would kill upwards of tens or hundreds of thousands of people, depending on the proximity of the refinery to population centers. That’s a disaster on a scale worse than Chernobyl. If you want to claim that insurance exists for refineries, so they aren’t so bad, then you need to retract your claims about the derivatives market. There were insurance systems in place there too. Remember AIG? There’s a bill in the US Senate about the need for protection against just these sorts of disasters, but the oil industry doesn’t want to pay for it, so it’s being held up. I don’t think that you want to classify this as a fully remediable disaster. If you do, then clearly we just care about different things in our analysis. I care about lives lost and people getting sick.

2. The candidate technology here is the burning of fossil fuels, which could be hugely reduced if we were using nuclear power instead of coal. Your insistence that we can’t calculate the potential damage here should, to be consistent with your analysis with nuclear, militate towards not burning fossil fuels. You’ve already claimed that a nuclear plant that doesn’t exist can’t melt down. Similarly, fossil fuel plants that don’t exist can’t destroy our climate system.

3. Ok, at least we agree on this one.

4. I mentioned such a disaster in an earlier post. Quoting myself: “In 1975, the Banqiao Dam failure killed 26,000 people directly, and 145,000 people indirectly, and negatively affecting millions more.” This is, I believe, the largest power-generation-related disaster there has been, in terms of human costs. Tons of real infrastructure was also destroyed by the unleashed water as well, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of structures.

Again, I’d like to see what the larger method of analysis is. Just saying “Black Swan” doesn’t do much.

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ScentOfViolets 03.22.11 at 2:25 am

I don’t contest that AGW catastrophe is a black swan outcome. What I object to is any actionable connection between building more or fewer nuke plants and that outcome. You might as well tie the usage of styrofoam cups to the AGW black swan as nuclear power.

Ah, so you’re just out-and-out saying that you’re not going to answer my question. Which, btw, I have already said explicitly has nothing to do with nuclear and everything to do with whether or not you’re being consistent in the application of your concerns.

So, will you now answer the question of why we shouldn’t shut down all carbon emitters immediately? Heck, I’ll rephrase yet again: given your concerns, why shouldn’t we shut down both nuclear power plants and all power plants burning hydrocarbons? Gotta watch out for those black swans, right?

Oh, and Zamfir, I think it would be the courteous and civilized thing to do to offer me an apology round about now ;-) How about it?

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ScentOfViolets 03.22.11 at 2:31 am

4. Hydroelectric dams. I am unaware of any hydroelectric dams that have failed catastrophically. A few hundred lives have been lost over the last century in small dam failures in the USA. These were all fully remediable situations, inflicting no huge cleanup costs comparable to a nuclear disaster. There are no functional alternatives to dams; there are functional alternatives to nuclear power.

Good Lord, do you have to be spoonfed:

1975: Shimantan/Banqiao Dam Failure
Type of power: Hydroelectric
Human lives lost: 171,000
Cost: $8,700,000,000
What happened: Shimantan Dam in China’s Henan province fails and releases 15.738 billion tons of water, causing widespread flooding that destroys 18 villages and 1500 homes and induces disease epidemics and famine

Geeze. And the worst nuclear power plant accident, which I think we all agree is Chernobyl? The death toll was 4,056 (Source for this number: United Nations Scientific Subcommittee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation.)

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ScentOfViolets 03.22.11 at 2:36 am

Actually ScentOfViolets makes bizarre claims about the impossibility of various renewable sources with crackpot arguments all the time. At one point he was trying to lecture on the impossibility of extracting enough rare earth metals to make solar panels until he got schooled by the guy who trades about half the global supply of the metal in question.

First some bizarre rant about wind power and now this. Are you smoking the bone tonight?

258

Straightwood 03.22.11 at 2:38 am

The majority of citizens believe that the Fukushima accident demonstrates the danger of nuclear power, when any informed observer must reach the opposite conclusion. How do we resolve this conundrum?

Did I really read this correctly? Chris implies that the Fukushima accident demonstrates the safety of nuclear power. Similarly, surviving an auto accident demonstrates the safety of auto travel, and surviving a dangerous hospital borne infection demonstrates the safety of hospitals. By this logic, the more plants that melt down without catastrophic radiation release, the more confident the public should be of nuclear power safety.

We can easily resolve the “conundrum” by explaining to the public, in great detail, the differences between the assurances made by the plant designers and operators and the facts of the incident. It would also help to show the public videos of the reactor buildings exploding, to show how rugged the pumps, valves, and containment vessels are. This would reassure them enormously.

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Jake 03.22.11 at 2:41 am

The Three Mile Island cleanup cost about $900 million and took 12 years.

The Exxon Valdez spill cost over $2 billion to clean up and the effects are still being felt. The Deepwater Horizon spill is expected to cost $6 billion, and no one knows how long the effects will last. The Deepwater Horizon accident also killed several times as many people as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants have (so far!), and wasn’t even caused by an earthquake that killed more than ten thousand people in a first world country with modern building codes.

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Ryan 03.22.11 at 2:42 am

PHB: I’m not ScentOfViolets, and I haven’t seen any crazy claims in this thread about renewables. So I can’t speak to that. Again, I’m more than thrilled to use wind and solar and wave and geothermal wherever we can. And I’m happy to employ a carbon tax to put these (and nuclear) on a fairer footing compared to fossil fuels.

I’d be more than thrilled to cut military spending. I’d be delighted to use those savings on building fast trains and wind farms and solar power towers and all sorts of good stuff. But I don’t see why you want to bow to “political realities” against nuclear, and then ignore them when it comes to reducing military spending and using the money to fund liberal objectives. Using wind at any real scale, and ramping it up so it’s getting to the point where it’s replacing existing coal or nuclear power, rather than just adding capacity, requires (as I understand it) a complete redesign of our power grid, which is complicated as there isn’t a single agency in charge of it. These are pretty big costs. I’m again, more than happy to say that we should develop a “smart grid”, but it’s certainly not free or easy. And, as Chris points out, you run into serious distribution issues. Not everywhere that people live is there a steady source of wind power. And transmitting power for very long distances is hugely wasteful (and can be fairly dangerous given the power requirements), given line loss.

Point being, you don’t get to assume away problems for your favored outcome, then claim that problems are intractable for the other side. I don’t think anyone is so in love with nuclear power that they wouldn’t rather use wind/solar/wave/geothermal power if it were legitimately cost-competitive and could serve a baseload function for the power grid. I have no bone to pick with renewables. I do have a serious bone to pick with fossil fuels. And given present technologies, nuclear is by far the closest substitute to coal plants, while wind, solar and wave power are complements that can help reduce peak loads.

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Straightwood 03.22.11 at 2:47 am

So, will you now answer the question of why we shouldn’t shut down all carbon emitters immediately?

We obviously can’t shut down all carbon emitters immediately, and there are alternatives to nuclear power for remediating carbon emissions. We can stop building new nuke plants and begin retiring existing ones (as Germany has decided to do) without ending civilization or precipitating an AGW apocalypse.

Do you believe the Japanese will replace the lost generating capacity of Fukushima with another nuclear plant?

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Ryan 03.22.11 at 2:53 am

Straightwood: with respect to comment 258: NO ONE DIED. In an accident brought on by the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan, followed by extremely large tsunami. Deepwater Horizon killed a dozen or two people just from the explosions, then poisoned a huge swath of the gulf region. No one’s suggesting that we stop using oil. The oil industry regularly has accidents that kill people. The coal industry regularly has accidents that kill people. The health consequences of both of these industries operating kills thousands of people, just in the US, every year. Besides climate effects, and illnesses. This is a vastly worse record. No one is claiming that nuclear reactors are all ponies and ice cream. But I think we are claiming that they have vastly better safety records than the relevant alternatives.

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Straightwood 03.22.11 at 3:05 am

I think we are claiming that they have vastly better safety records than the relevant alternatives.

There is no practical alternative to oil drilling, refining, and distribution. Thermal power generation should be phased out and replaced by technologies that do not aggravate AGW and pose the risks of conventional nuclear power plants. If nuclear reactor technology can be made fail-safe, then I will change my negative view. Until then, it looks like a bad bet. The government and citizens of New York State did not succumb to collective insanity when they decomissioned Shoreham. It was a very costly decision, and it was not made lightly.

264

PHB 03.22.11 at 3:06 am

Ryan,

There are degrees of political unfeasibility. Proposing to continue use of current nuclear stations is risky but feasible. Proposing to build a new nuclear power plant is something that no representative will accept in their own district – unless they don’t mind becoming an ex-representative in the near future. There will be plenty of support for nuclear power if it is somewhere else.

The reason that the US is not using the nuclear waste repository in Nevada has nothing to do with the site or the danger of moving the waste. It has everything to do with the fact that Senator Harry Reid represents Nevada and Nevada is a swing state. Of course it would be far safer if the US moved fuel away from the reactors and put it in Nevada. In safety terms it is a no-brainer. But it isn’t going to happen.

I don’t see the F35 as military spending, I see it as pork voted through Congress to secure jobs for constituents. It is thus at some level fungible with other pork projects – high speed rail, ethanol, renewable power.

The pentagon has been cut in the past and there is huge public support for doing so. People start to realize that the more is spent on the military, the more need there is to go to war.

But yes, there is a major question of political willpower in the US, but that is not a global constant. Japan has an even more dysfunctional political system, but when they get moving on something they can get moving. They have a stagnant economy and a major cleanup to perform and a major shortage of generating capacity. Prospects for conservation look poor.

If I was in charge there I would be throwing the country full tilt into a push for wind and wave generation. A command economy is a lousy way to run an economy in the long run but it can be gratifyingly effective for short periods and for tightly constrained goals.

The big limiting factor as you point out is the grid. But that was already being fixed in the US for other reasons. The US grid is currently vulnerable to a cyber attack. It has very little redundancy, it has a lot of points of failure, the security of the control equipment is primitive at best.

There are other options though. If we look at a 5-10 year horizon wave power is feasible. There are designs we could build today if we were prepared to abandon things like environmental studies. The amount of power surging in and out of various bays is quite staggering. Finding a way to harness it is more challenging though.

265

ScentOfViolets 03.22.11 at 3:18 am

So, will you now answer the question of why we shouldn’t shut down all carbon emitters immediately?

We obviously can’t shut down all carbon emitters immediately, and there are alternatives to nuclear power for remediating carbon emissions. We can stop building new nuke plants and begin retiring existing ones (as Germany has decided to do) without ending civilization or precipitating an AGW apocalypse.

So in other words, despite being asked at least eight, nine, or more times, you’re not going to answer the question. You’re a real champ.

Obviously, you don’t have any idea of how convincing you really are. And Zamfir? I think it’s time for that apology. I really do. But if you can’t bring yourself to do that, you might allow as to how this Straightwood character has not been behaving very well.

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ScentOfViolets 03.22.11 at 3:36 am

There’s something to be said about willing to take a stand on an issue despite not knowing much about it . . . and having no qualms about actually saying that this is the case rather than engage in endless equivocation, weaseling and other such Frankfurtian nonsense.

My dad for example is very up-front, and has no problems with saying stuff like “I don’t know what it is exactly; but I know I don’t like it.”

Folks like “Straightarrow” (more irony!) might take a page from his book.

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Straightwood 03.22.11 at 3:42 am

So in other words, despite being asked at least eight, nine, or more times, you’re not going to answer the question. You’re a real champ.

I don’t understand what makes you so antagonistic, SoV. My answer is NO, we should not shut down all carbon emitters immediately. Is that plain enough for you? I am hardly a lone voice, and my criticisms of current nuclear power technology are not eccentric or unorthodox. The Fukushima incident has struck a grave blow against the nuclear power industry, and it is up to that industry to regain the trust of the public. I don’t think your arguments will contribute to that outcome.

268

ScentOfViolets 03.22.11 at 3:51 am

NO. You’re not answering the question – asked many times – as to why nuclear is a booga booga black swan, but fossil fuels are not, even though their potential for harm – think Permian die off – is far, far higher. You’ve been shucking and jiving all along . . . and only to nullify the actual facts on the ground, which is that nuclear power is far, far safer than burning hydrocarbons. That’s just the facts.

You want to claim there’s something about nuclear that makes it a black swan? Fine. But you damn well better be consistent in your application and apply this to the fossil fuel industry as well. And you’re trying very, very hard not to be consistent . . . and being disingenuous as all get out about what your doing to boot.

And that, my friend, is nasty, rude, and uncivil behaviour. You deserve every bit of my opprobrium until you man up. You can either actually answer the question. You can drop the claim.

Or you can do what people like my father do, namely letting other people know they don’t like something while being very up front about admitting they really don’t know much about it.

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ScentOfViolets 03.22.11 at 3:54 am

In still Eathier words reserved for people who want to play like Straightwood: Don’t piss on my leg and then tell me it’s okay because you’re smiling while you do it.

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Jake 03.22.11 at 4:08 am

Do you believe the Japanese will replace the lost generating capacity of Fukushima with another nuclear plant?

Yes. They have at least four nuclear power plants in various phases of construction but not yet operational, so we can just look for announcements that work on those plants has been cancelled indefinitely.

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Straightwood 03.22.11 at 4:13 am

@269

The quality of your manners matches that of your arguments. Don’t waste your opprobrium on this unmanly foe. I will not reply further to you.

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ScentOfViolets 03.22.11 at 4:21 am

Translation: “I’ve got nothin’, but I’m going to pretend that you’re being unwantonly hostile as opposed to being rightfully upset at my rude behaviour . . . and use that as a pretext to not answer the question.” Shades of Sigourney Weaver in “Working Girl”.

People like Straightwood don’t seem to realize that people don’t like it when you bullshit them. Or maybe they do, but they think their cause is so righteous the expetionalism fairy will grant them a special exemption for this general rule.

Instead of what’s actually the case, that people then tend to think they’re sanctimonious little weasels and that their opposition to nuclear power is just plain nuts.

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Chris Crawford 03.22.11 at 4:21 am

Straightwood writes: Did I really read this correctly? Chris implies that the Fukushima accident demonstrates the safety of nuclear power. Similarly, surviving an auto accident demonstrates the safety of auto travel, and surviving a dangerous hospital borne infection demonstrates the safety of hospitals. By this logic, the more plants that melt down without catastrophic radiation release, the more confident the public should be of nuclear power safety.

Absolutely. Let’s walk through each of your examples. Let’s suppose that you crash your car into a brick wall and are unhurt. Then you smash your car into a telephone pole and still you’re unhurt. Then you get into a head-on collision with a Mack truck and still you’re unhurt. Would you not conclude that your car is an extremely safe vehicle?

Now let’s suppose that you check into the hospital and come down with an infection. The hospital staff notes the infection, gives you a pill, and you’re immediately healed. You do this over and over, always with the same result. Would you not conclude that the hospital is a safe place?

In precisely the same way, if nuclear power plants are melting down all around us, and not one of them inflicts any injury upon any member of the public, then the only rational conclusion to draw is that nuclear power plants pose no threat to the public. And in fact, that is precisely what has happened at Fukushima.

Tthe central cognitive task here is precision of meaning. A nuclear reactor can huff and puff and make all sorts of scary noises, but the bottom line for public safety is — public safety! If you want to worry about how many people are killed by a reactor accident, then count bodies and/or radioactivity releases. Counting explosions, smoke clouds, headlines, and statements by government authorities does not measure the public health impact of a reactor accident. Keep your eye on the ball.

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Chris Crawford 03.22.11 at 4:42 am

PHB writes in #264: If we look at a 5-10 year horizon wave power is feasible. There are designs we could build today if we were prepared to abandon things like environmental studies. The amount of power surging in and out of various bays is quite staggering. Finding a way to harness it is more challenging though.

First, let’s clearly differentiate between tidal power and wave power. Tidal power is a rather special situation: definitely feasible but very limited in total power potential. Wave power has enormous potential, but I’m not as optimistic as you are about making this technology practical. Remember, people have been trying to get this working since the 1970s, and some very clever ideas have been proposed. They just can’t get the economics right, largely because wave power is so diffuse. You end up building these long linear devices that stretch up and down the coast for miles and miles. This raises all sorts of headachy problems with boaters, fishermen, and other users of the seas. And don’t forget the possibility of the Surfer’s Liberation Front engaging in terrorist tactics. ;-)

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Jim Harrison 03.22.11 at 5:39 am

Quite apart from whether or not nuclear power is a rational option for future power generation is the question of whether we can get our act together to do anything nuclear or non-nuclear that involves major investments and NIMBY issues. You’d think, for example, that the U.S. could get the lead out on building a large-scale coal-burning plant with carbon capture if only to get some practical experience with the technology; but work on such facilities keeps getting delayed. And if we’re going to get serious about wind power, we need to make major improvements to the distribution system. That’s not happening very fast either.

Thing is, if we don’t build some new generation, it’s going to be mighty hard to decommission the aging nuclear plants, and it’s the old plants that represent the most serious risks. For the time being, the world-wide recession and the current lowering of prices for natural gas has made replacing the old plants seem less pressing; but the current glut of natural gas is not guaranteed to continue, especially since the true environmental cost of fracking remains to be determined–since people aren’t afraid of chemical contamination to the same extent they get upset by radioactivity, the stage is set for some nasty surprises. Meanwhile, most of the people I’ve talked to in the power business are skeptical that wind power can grow much faster than it already is growing. It’s not that they are down on the technology. On the contrary, they are enthusiastic about it. Unfortunately, there are bottlenecks in windmill construction that mean that simply putting more money into wind in the short and medium term may just bid up the price of the equipment without yielding a lot more MWs. And conservation, the single best approach, is probably not enough, even if we could get over the public’s and the politicians’ lack of enthusiasm.

So my question is: can our economic and political system relearn the ability to do things or will we just dither around until disasters and shortages force our hand?

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Chris Crawford 03.22.11 at 5:28 pm

Good question, Jim. My own opinion, which I emphasize is just opinion, not the more rigorous technical analysis that I have heretofore concentrated on, is that our republic is suffering from political arteriosclerosis. Various factions have mastered the art of manipulating the system to their own benefit, and now our republic no longer functions to seek the greater good. This has taken a long and complex evolutionary sequence, with many different factors at work, but the single factor that I decry most loudly is the overthrow of the intellectual aristocracy. There was a time when our body politic accorded respect to those who were possessed of appropriate expertise. When the physicists told him that they could build a war-winning weapon, FDR took a billion-dollar flyer on their word alone. Nowadays, the term “expert” is often used in a derogatory context. Indeed, this rejection of intellectual expertise has manifested itself in this very discussion. We live in an age of intellectual egalitarianism; as Tom Lehrer said, we no longer discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, creed — or ability. Sarah Palin’s opinions on evolution are just as “valid” as Stephen Gould’s. Senator Inhofe’s opinions on climate change are unswayed by the reports of the National Academy of Sciences. The general public dismisses the assurances of the experts regarding the safety of nuclear power as so much whitewashing. Healthy skepticism has been supplanted by anarchic denial.

When policymaking is a demolition derby of opinions rather than an informed analysis of options, the results are chaotic — and chaotic responses to dangerous problems inevitably lead to civilizational failure.

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ScentOfViolets 03.22.11 at 6:04 pm

Quite apart from whether or not nuclear power is a rational option for future power generation is the question of whether we can get our act together to do anything nuclear or non-nuclear that involves major investments and NIMBY issues. You’d think, for example, that the U.S. could get the lead out on building a large-scale coal-burning plant with carbon capture if only to get some practical experience with the technology; but work on such facilities keeps getting delayed. And if we’re going to get serious about wind power, we need to make major improvements to the distribution system. That’s not happening very fast either.

I mentioned this up above wrt to the design cyles for nuclear power plants, but you’re right, it does seem to have a more general application these days. There’s been a lot of speculation about this, everything from elite capture of the relevant institutions to the relative difficulty of advancement after the low-hanging fruit has been picked.

In particular, with regard to system for electrical distribution (or more general energy distribution), this is a very hard problem unless you’re willing to throw a lot of money at it. Look at the real reason for rolling blackouts in (East) Japan for example:

All of eastern Japan, including Tokyo and the disaster-struck region to the north, is standardized on 50Hz supply while the rest of the country uses 60Hz.

Connecting the two grids is possible, but it requires frequency changing stations. Three such facilities exist, but they have a total capacity of 1 gigawatt.

When the quake hit, it shut down 11 reactors including three that were in operation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant that is now at the center of Japan’s nuclear problems. With the 11 reactors offline, 9.7GW was gone from eastern Japan’s electricity production capacity.

And that’s the root of Tokyo’s current electricity problems: utility companies in west Japan are unable to make up for all of the lost power.

Various technological solutions have been offered up over the years, including wackiness like using high-voltage DC for long-distance transmission (which is not so wacky, actually, but it is expensive.) Proponents have argued that it could be made cheaper with sufficient R & D; but given the, er, political realities, the likelihood of this sort of thing being funded well enough to ever make a difference seems rather small. You get into this MAD cycle where one side says give us the money and we’ll develop a better and cheaper system, and the other side says show us a better and cheaper system and we’ll give you the money for it. Which, bringing this back around is where nuclear is these days: lots of good design concepts, worthy of having massive amounts of dollars thrown at them for extensive testing and development. It’s also kind of hypocritical of those who oppose nuclear power to say that no new designs have been developed that are safer than the traditional ones when they’re also the ones who help block money for those new reactors :-(

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ScentOfViolets 03.22.11 at 6:36 pm

Good question, Jim. My own opinion, which I emphasize is just opinion, not the more rigorous technical analysis that I have heretofore concentrated on, is that our republic is suffering from political arteriosclerosis. Various factions have mastered the art of manipulating the system to their own benefit, and now our republic no longer functions to seek the greater good. This has taken a long and complex evolutionary sequence, with many different factors at work, but the single factor that I decry most loudly is the overthrow of the intellectual aristocracy.

Hmmm . . . my own opinion is that this is just a particular manifestation of general case of organizational arteriosclerosis. You know the drill: A successful organization, be it a polity, a business, or a special-interest group like a union is initially successful because of the human capital it brings to bear on the problem. So, for example, you have the breakaway’s from Shockley’s company, the so-called traitorous eight, founding Fairchild Semiconductor. Which went on to become very successful indeed, and mostly on the strength of the abilities of those early pioneers.

But after the organization becomes large enough to coast on it’s past successes, it seems to be the usual case that men with an entirely different skill set emerge to take charge of the company. These are the sorts who tend to be very good at organizational infighting, politicking, etc., but who have very little aptitude or interest in the actual business itself (In fact, these skill sets seem to be almost entirely mutually exclusive.) Thus the phenomenon of competent engineering heads of divisions getting displaced by know-nothing MBA types who have the self-serving belief that business expertise is a general skill transferable across businesses, regardless of what they happen to be selling.

Of course, this isn’t generally true, the organization suffers, ceases to be innovative[1], and comes to rely more and more on strong-arm tactics to maintain market share rather than on any head-to head competition. The follow up is that the rot sets in, the organization becomes hollowed-out (one might say “financialized” ;-), and ultimately succumbs entirely – and rather abruptly to an outsider’s eyes. How could Rome possibly have fallen?

A rather long-winded way of saying I’m in essential agreement with our point about the overthrow and eventual debasement of the intellectual aristocracy. Where I would differ is in thinking that as far as public discourse goes, this is more of an effect than a cause.

[1]Funny, but, ever notice how to these types, “innovation” usually means “cut costs” rather than “make new stuff”?

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