Thursday, March 17, 2011


Broken Power Line
Broken Power Line, Lebanon, 2005

If the Fukushima disaster really causes us to give up on nuclear power, I hope to God it won't mean more coal, because that's what's really destroying the planet. I'm feeling terribly depressed about it. Unreasonably depressed, perhaps. At some level, I'm still the teenage nerdy techno-utopian that I was a quarter-century ago. The 1950's dream of abundant, clean energy has always held a special allure for me. Imagine what we could do with it – eradicate war and hunger, go to the stars, pursue the arts and sciences... Yeah, it was a beautiful dream.

I still think we have the technological capability to do it. A thorium-based economy is totally feasible, and we know how to make nuclear plants safe. The Fukushima disaster has, however, shaken my already fragile faith in our social capability.

We could do nuclear right, but we're not. The plant was to be decommissioned this month. It's forty years old, which is about 20 years more than you should run a nuclear plant. It wasn't designed for a seismically unstable area to start with: the reserve power generators were at the bottom floors, within reach of the tsunami, and the cooling systems were not on the same concrete block as the reactor cores. Now there's talk of spent fuel going re-critical, which could only happen if some pretty huge corners were cut – stacking so much of them in the cooling pond that re-criticality is prevented only by boron plates or boric acid in the water.

I still think that nuclear power itself is a red herring, and the anti-nuclear movement has in fact done enormous harm to our efforts to find a way to live sustainably on this rock. The problems are with our society, with its insatiable thirst for energy, and the economic incentives that prevent it from being produced sustainably. The way the cards are stacked, that means that whatever's cheapest in the short term will get built. That means coal and keeping old nuclear plants running. If we managed to address those social problems, I think the issue with nuclear power would go away by itself. Perhaps we'd find that we could produce all the power we need from renewable resources; after all, we've only begun to explore those possibilities. Or perhaps we'd take nuclear security seriously enough to use that technology responsibly.

There's a lot of spent fuel sitting around in cooling ponds all over the world. It can't stay there forever. I don't believe that burying it is a responsible solution; it'll be there for thousands of years, radiating away, as our civilizations rise and fall. The only way we know of to really get rid of it is yet more nuclear technology – the so-called fourth-generation plants that China has just decided to research on a massive scale. The anti-nuclear movement will reflexively oppose funding that research, or building those plants. As any new technology, it'll be riskier than the more mature technology it replaces. It could well be that there will be a disaster in one of those plants. Given the political cost of nuclear power now, how likely is it that that research will be properly funded?

The worst outcome is that we're going to be building new coal and oil, running our existing nuclear plants beyond their expiry dates, and having that spent fuel sitting around in ponds until the inevitable happens and Fukushimas and Three Mile Islands and Chernobyls become routine occurrences rather than once in a quarter-century tragedies. And that, I fear, is the way things are going, thanks to the combined efforts of the power companies pushing for the cheapest solutions and the anti-nuclear lobby pushing against anything atomic.

Living in denial is looking increasingly attractive these days.


  1. There are plenty of solutions. We never had to build any nuclear or coal plants. Earth's magnetic field can power up entire world, for free and without cables. Nikola Tesla demonstrated this to US congress back in 1905.

    What we really need is change in power. As soon as the world isn't run by crooks anymore, we're able to solve all of these problems. For example nuclear radiation can be converted into electricity, safely. What's happening in Japan opens up these possibilities, something equally good will come out of this mess.

  2. Er, no. Thanks for the laugh, though, I thought I was the techno-utopian here.

  3. I think your overestimating the power of us anti-nuclear folks - most nations in Europe are getting over 25% of their power from nuclear already, including your nation. In fact, not only did you all get the two new plants approved last year, but you also had one approved in 2002. Three plants in eight years - for a nation of 5 and half million, I'd say you're nuclear lobby is doing pretty damn well.

    France is around 75% - I doubt their population is anywhere near that pro-nuclear. The U.S. is about 20%. Japan nearly 30%. Given how long it takes to get these plants up and running, I'd say that the pro-nuclear lobby has been pretty successful.

    But I agree - coal is awful. It's destroyed my father's home region in Pennsylvania. I have seen firsthand what coal mining damage looks like, and how the damage lasts for decades.

    I'll continue to believe that until we invest as much time and money into sources like wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and others as we have invested in coal,oil, and nuclear, we won't know how well (or not well) those sources will do.

  4. I would advocate continued research. It would be great if we could contain nuclear fission safely, power down a plant quickly and safely, insulate against seismic events, and solve the problem of disposing of radioactive waste. Like you, I see coal as immensely destructive and scientists I listen to are urging us to get off coal Right Now. Nuclear energy is an attractive alternative, generating a lot of power without contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

    Unfortunately, nuclear development is driven by the profit motive -- it is certainly so in the United States. We have nuclear plants built near major fault lines that, in at least one case, was never required to include an earthquake in its safety plans; in another case, it is designed to withstand an earthquake fall smaller than what is predicted for the next major event at the San Andreas Fault. This helps profits. It also assures that when an event does occur, the consequences will be catastrophic.

    So I'm left with the plants being incredibly expensive to build, and corners being cut on safety. The bad outcomes from the risks are very, very bad, with little margin for error and catastrophic consequences. This is the really the only alternative the United States backs with billions of dollars in investment.

    And I think I know how that's going to play out. The story does not have a happy ending. Moreover, the lack of investment in renewable energy infrastructure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: it doesn't meet our needs because we don't invest, therefore we don't invest and it never emerges as a viable alternative to nuclear energy.

  5. @Nathan: Well, now's your chance. I'm just worried that it'll be Sweden all over again: they decided to phase out nukes some 30 years ago, and the practical upshot is that they went from having the best-designed, best-run plants in the world to having the most incident-prone, worst-run, oldest plants in Europe... and then reversed the decision. Can't see how it could've gone worse, without an actual meltdown anyway.

    I'm not in the mood for confrontation. I recognize we're unlikely to ever agree on this, but I would like to know more about what you're proposing, at a more concrete level than "no more nukes" and "more money for renewables" and "a change of attitude towards the planet." Would you care to indulge me?

    Suppose a triumphant Green Party President appointed you Energy Czar. You have full control over energy policy: taxes, subsidies, permits, and regulations. The only constraints are that (1) it has to be revenue-neutral over 30 years, i.e., if you invest big now, you have to get it back over that period, and (2) there may be no sudden disruption of supply, causing an acute energy shortage. What would you do? I'm not asking for nitty-gritty detail or hard figures, just a broad outline. And I'm not asking in order to pick holes into it; I'm genuinely curious.

    The reason I'm asking is that I've thought about this a fair bit, and I can't see how it could be done without serious amounts of new nuclear – if for no other reason than to dispose of the nuclear waste in those cooling ponds and the plutonium and U-235 sitting on top of missiles (and left over from the Cold War).

  6. Bummer! I left a long comment on this and it seems to have disappeared or never got posted or something.

    Basically, it was about how I love the idea of nuclear energy and would support further research to see if we can grapple with containing fission safely, powering it down quickly and safely, and disposing of the waste.

    It comes down to risk analysis and management for me. The margin of error is so unforgiving and the consequences so catastrophic. I just don't think we benefit enough to outweigh those risks and consequences, for all the money we put into nuclear in the U.S. (Besides which, the profit motive is firmly at work in proliferating nuclear energy, at the expense of safety. We have nuclear plants here built near major fault lines that in one case has NO earthquake contingency plan, and in another case is designed for a quake much smaller than what they predict the next major event will be on that fault line.)

    So I would reallocate what we are investing into building a viable infrastructure for less dangerous technologies while continuing to do nuclear research.


  8. @Algernon: I've got your comment in my mail, it got forwarded there. I thought you deleted it yourself for some reason because I didn't see it when I checked the blog. If you like, I can re-post it. Blogger was acting weird yesterday; it ate my reply to Nathan and I had to rewrite that too.

    My program would be much like that. I'd divide technologies into three tiers: "encourage," "discourage," and "dismantle." I'd handle it mostly by taxation, with the revenue raised used for subsidy and investment.

    My tax structure would be twofold.

    In the "dismantle" tier, I'd slap a tax that starts low but goes up by an accelerating amount over time. Say, 1% this year, 2% next year, then to 4%, then to 7%, to 11%, 16%, 22%, and so on.

    In the other tiers, I'd slap a flat per-kilowatt-hour tax that doesn't go up over time after the adjustment period that moves it there: high in the "discourage" tier, low or possibly negative in the "encourage" tier.

    I'd use the revenue raised to fund primary research into new technologies. My priorities would be (1) conservation, (2) nuclear designed to dispose of nuclear waste, (3) solar and wind, (4) other renewable sources. (FWIW I'd scrap funding fusion research for now. We've been banging at it for, what, 50 years, and it's still where it always was, "about 30 years from a commercial plant.")

    I'd place our existing energy techs in these tiers as follows:

    -- ENCOURAGE --
    Conservation and recapture of "waste" energy from existing processes, solar, wind, hydro, other renewables (wave power, geothermal etc.), nuclear from nuclear waste and warheads.
    -- DISCOURAGE --
    Biomass, natural gas, coal with carbon sequestration, nuclear from current sources.
    -- DISMANTLE --
    Coal, oil, other fossil fuels, aging nuclear.

    Additionally, I would (1) immediately decommission the most obviously stupid-dangerous nuclear plants, such as ones that are well past their best-before date or built on seismically unstable areas without due provision for that instability, and (2) require that nuclear plants unable to reprocess their spent fuel pay those fourth-gen plants to do it.

    We've got so much of that cold war junk and spent fuel sitting around that if we built as much fourth-gen capability as we currently have in second and third-gen capability, we'd keep those things running for fifty years. I won't think beyond that point; either we'd have developed something better than nuclear in which case that technology would die of its own accord, or we'd have developed a robust basis in fourth-gen, which would allow us to transition to a thorium economy.

  9. I agree with most of your points. The FUD from the anti-nuclear lobby should be accompanied by a a realistic alternative to nuclear, and not just the generic "let's use the sun, wind, etc.".

    As a physicist, I think you are dismissing nuclear fusion too quickly. True, it hasn't given many results yet, but there are very difficult theoretical problems. It is not just a scale problem that there isn't enough money to build a large enough reactor. Every time the operating temperature is raised, the boundaries of plasma physics are reached and scientists bump into unknown physics. More brain power is needed. But it works, most of the energy in the universe comes from nuclear fusion... The fact that many anti-nuclear groups are against nuclear fusion is even more stupid than their being against nuclear fission.

    Some good numbers for the proponents of wind power against nuclear:

  10. I'm all for pursuing fusion power as a science exercise. Hell, I'm all for much bigger science projects, the LHC for example. I'm just not counting on it as a realistic power technology in the foreseeable future. If it turns out it does work and it is commercially exploitable, that would be awesome. But it could be the most cost-effective way to use fusion power is to point some collectors at the reactor up in the sky.