At the height of the nuclear war scare in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, American and Soviet military planners engaged in a spate of "civil defense" planning. This hole-digging mentality, parodied most famously in Dr. Strangelove (and possibly the best, most incisive episode of The Twilight Zone), meant digging nuclear fallout shelters and creating structures capable of surviving the blast of a nuclear warhead. Civil defense planners found that it is possible to design a structure at a reasonable cost to survive a nuclear explosion on the order of one megaton. To withstand a larger explosion, the design rapidly became prohibitively expensive. NORAD's famous Cheyenne Mountain complex, for example, can withstand a five to seven megaton blast within a 2 mile radius. And that thing is dug into a goddamn mountain. The moral of the story, of course, is that no matter how much "defense" the Americans or Soviets built, all the other side had to do was build a bigger bomb. Five to seven megatons? Great; hey NORAD, here's our 10 megaton warhead.

So safety can be engineered up to a certain point, beyond which additional safety is theoretically possible but economically impractical. The result is that almost any system (excepting those that are fail-safe or passively safe) is vulnerable to an adverse event that is either unforeseeable or highly unlikely. The World Trade Center was designed to withstand a hit from a 707, but not fully fueled 767s. New Orleans was engineered to survive a glancing hit from a Category 3 hurricane, but not the accompanying storm surge. The Banqiao Dam was designed to withstand a 1-in-1000 years flood, not the 1-in-2000 years flood that breached it in 1975. Your car's frame, restraints, and airbags are designed to protect you in a normal highway accident, but not if you drive head-on into a concrete pillar at 100 mph. History tells us that you can plan for a lot but it is neither possible or economically feasible to plan for everything even with the best intentions.

Fast forward to today and note what is happening in Fukushima at the nuclear facility. The reactors were designed to withstand an earthquake, but not an 8.9 earthquake followed by a tsunami. It would be easy enough to write this off as an unforeseeable event for which no reasonable enterprise could prepare. A disaster of this scale certainly supports that logic. Unfortunately, if we look more closely we see that a chain of human and engineering mistakes undermine the attempts to make nuclear power safe.

Two caveats. First, I am a fan of nuclear power, at least in comparison to coal- and gas-burning generation. Most liberals are reflexively against it (more on that in a moment). Second, I'm not a certified expert on this topic, but merely someone who has done a lot of reading. If at any point I misrepresent something feel free to correct me.

Boiling Water Reactors (BWR) like Fukushima are an obsolete technology from the late 1960s. BWRs, like any other nuclear reactor that relies on a supply of pumped coolants to prevent overheating, are inherently dangerous. Recent events illustrate this. Fukushima has backup generators to provide power to the cooling supply in the event of a grid failure, but…what happens if the backup generators are also damaged? That is the question no one asks during planning. It is the equivalent of "What happens if the Russkies build a bigger bomb?" The answer is always "Well, then I guess we're fucked." Someone translate that into Japanese, please.

Fukushima is better designed than Chernobyl (which was the RMBK-type reactor that was so dangerous Brezhnev couldn't even give them away to Third World countries) in that its defense-in-depth is stronger. What they share in common is two alarming design flaws. First, control rods have to be inserted mechanically from the bottom, which is not possible when power fails. Were they lowered in from above, gravity could do the work even in the absence of power. Second, the reactor continues to produce an incredible amount of heat after it has shut down. The reactors in Fukushima were long ago shut down, yet they continue to require extensive cooling to keep them subcritical. Modern nuclear technology does not replicate these flaws and thus, in my opinion, is a viable alternative to fossil fuel power. However, 99% of the operational reactors were built in the 1970s and feature the inherent limitations of that outdated technology.

The last step in any catastrophe is almost always human error. In Fukushima – again, this is my moderately informed opinion rather than fact – the people in charge attempted to save the economic value of the reactors rather than immediately recognizing the magnitude of the crisis and initiating their last-ditch safety measure: flooding the reactors with boron carbide and seawater, which would cool but also destroy them for good. They attempted less extreme measures – running the normal cooling systems on battery power, etc. – so that the reactors could be used to produce power again in the future. Accordingly, by the time they initiated the last resort plan involving seawater the reactors were already too hot, partially melted (as evidenced by airborne cesium), and beyond the point at which they could be cooled without adverse consequences if at all. It was, in a word, shocking to hear that 24 hours after the quake the Japanese authorities had yet to flood the reactors; the consequences are now apparent and will be increasingly so in the coming days.

Aside from the immediate tragedy – workers and residents exposed to radiation, thousands of gallons of radioactive liquid waste produced, etc. – the saddest thing about this is that it takes nuclear power off the table for a few decades much as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl did in the 1980s. It can be safe, but not with archaic 1960s technology that is fail-deadly and full of design flaws. Reactors operate here in the U.S. and around the world with very small margins of error. They are dangerous, and their "safe" operation depends on the assumption that nothing will happen to the reactor beyond what it is engineered to withstand. The more problems emerge from old Generation II designs, the lower the odds that advanced, passively safe, low-waste Gen IV reactors will ever go on line.


  • The problem is, the public can only handle being lied to so many times before getting wise when it comes to something as major as nuclear accidents.

    When these nuclear power plants were built, they were promised to be fail proof and completely safe. They turned out not to be. Instead, someone wanted to make a profit selling the equipment to build them, and generating "free" electricity, so they chose not to consider a lot of "what-ifs"… A lot of them are REALLY stupid, such as not protecting the backup generators. Houston went through the whole diesel-generator-is-useless-if-flooded bit in 2001 with Tropical Storm Allison that knocked out the generators for the huge Medical Center which happened to all be located.. in basements. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out you gotta protect the generators. And, in Japan, they've always known earthquakes and Tsunami go hand-in-hand, so how could they have ignored this possibility?

    Fact is – they did. And they will again. Better not to build it in the first place, because I guarantee you, somewhere there's someone who is going to ignore something and even the new "failsafe" designs will fail. It is just too much power to safely control in any circumstances, when you consider the costs of the slightest failure.

  • First of all, there is absolutely no such thing as "failproof". There is always something that can go wrong that wasn't anticipated. This is just how things are, no engineer can possibly plan for everything, given that they're all human.

    And therein lies the problem with nuclear power. Nobody argues that new technologies are not considerably safer than ones that are decades old. New Gen IV designs *are* much, much safer.

    But they're not failproof.

    And unlike most other forms of power, when the shit *does* hit the fan with a nuclear reactor, the results are not just disastrous. They are cataclysmic. It is *still* not safe to live in the area around Chernobyl, though you can pass through for a short duration relatively unscathed. When a coal plant explodes or a dam breaks, the damage to the land lasts for years, and anybody caught in the immediate wake is severely affected. When a nuclear reactor melts down, the damage to both the land *and* the people lasts for *decades*.

  • First of all, there is absolutely no such thing as "failproof". There is always something that can go wrong that wasn't anticipated.

    Correct. There is, however, safe-to-fail, as opposed to fail-safe. That is where Generation IV designs succeed; they may fail, but they do so in a way that does not cause its own catastrophe.

  • Since you asked for corrections, here's a few. This is pretty much all stuff I learned from @arclight's twitter feed; he's a nuclear safety engineer, and has mostly been "translating from nuclear to layman" (paraphrased), and has been getting most of his information from the statements released by the power company that runs the reactor.

    What happens if the generators fail? They do have a cooling system that doesn't require power to run (called RCIC); it uses steam from the reactor to run a turbine and pump in water. It does need some power to control valves and stuff, but they have enough battery power on-site to last for something like eight hours. Unfortunately, this system failed on the #1 reactor (I don't recall seeing any explanation of what caused the failure). They also have at least one other system for removing heat from the reactor, but I don't recall if it needs electrical power to run or not.

    Control rods inserted from the bottom. Yes, it does sound kind of stupid, but they designed it to work pretty well. They can't insert them from the top, since there's other equipment that has to be above the core in a BWR. From what I recall, they can insert the control rods using compressed air or hydraulics, and this worked just fine; all six of the reactors had the control rods automatically inserted within seconds of the earthquake.

    Still need cooling after shutdown. It is true that this is a problem; my only real critique here is that they don't need the cooling to keep the core sub-critical, they need the cooling to keep it from melting down.

    Human error. I don't really know one way or the other on this one. However, it's not like they were twiddling their thumbs; they were doing everything they could to keep water in the reactor, and it's only after that they weren't successful with the other methods that they fell back to adding first fire water (non-purified water from the fire-fighting supply) and then seawater.

    In the end, I suspect that this will end up rather like Three Mile Island: no substantial danger to the public, but it will crystallize anti-nuclear sentiment in lots of people.

  • It is a common saying that when you make something idiot-proof, the universe simply takes that as a challenge to breed a better grade of idiot.

  • I'd like to love nuclear, but how do you bypass the errant humans? And where does the waste go? So far, I think I'd rather do without. And yes, I do know that means doing without a lot. We're headed there anyway.

  • Do the math, it ain't happening:
    – A nuclear power plant generates 1 gigawatt.
    – The world currently consumes 15 terawatts.
    – Assuming we build 1 nuclear power plant per day, it will take us 41 years to build enough to generate 15 TW. By then, of course, we will need more.
    – We don't actually have enough nuclear fuel for this either

    It's a dead end. On top of that, it's expensive and dangerous. The only energy source that scales up to fossil fuel levels is solar: not geo, not wind, certainly not biofuels, and definitely not nuclear. Solar panels have their own resource constraints (silicon) but people are working on that.

  • I do think this is going to spark another round of "OMFG Nukular Powersss! Run away!" type talk, wrapped in the fairly new eco/green movement that wasn't there to form part of the discussion after Three Mile Island.

    I'd agree with you that any nuclear reactor built today would be much safer. I'd also agree with jj that the scaling and waste issues make it less than ideal. However, as a stop-gap toward a cleaner energy future as we get solar, wind, biomass, etc ready to be implemented I could probably be okay. Storing spent fuel someplace like Yukka Mountain has more regional environmental problems rather than the global once that fossil fuels are creating now.

    @jj You're mostly right that solar is the only one that independently scales to the level of fossil fuels. But you're missing the point. Where the world gets the vast majority of it's energy from fossil fuels now, in the future we NEED to build, no one type of energy generation will dominate. They'll ramp up geothermal in Iceland, we'll do solar in the US Southwest, the western US will run wind, and biomass will be harvested from what's left of our food production. It's going to take many, many different resources and approaches to shift all 15 terawatts of power we use off of petroleum and associated fossil fuels.

  • For what it's worth, I was a nuke on US Navy submarines, so I have more than a passing familiarity with fission power. I agree that BWR's are pretty fucking stupid ideas. Pressurized water reactors are more complicated in that they require a primary and secondary loop for operation, but they're safer in the sense that you're not maintaining the delicate act of nucleate boiling. Sure, that is really efficient at removing heat, but it means that you run a much greater risk of a departure from nucleate boiling, which leaves you with steam-filled channels, which is, uh, bad.

    You can have bottom-inserted control rods as long as you have a mechanism for inserting them in case there is no power–a good old-fashioned spring works just fine.

    From what I understand, here's where things got fucked. Once the control rods are in, you've got no ability to generate enough electricity via the turbogenerator to run the cooling system. Okay, so they had on-site diesel generators as a back up. Problem there is that the tsunami kind of, uh, washed them away.

    But there was a plan for that, too–they trucked in diesel generators. Naturally, this took some time. The on-site batteries, which were functioning perfectly, provided 8 hours of sufficient power to run the cooling system enough to remove decay heat. When the trucked-in generators finally arrived, they didn't have the right kind of adapter to couple them to the plants system.

    And that's when things took a turn. That, from what I have read, is when you started getting an uncovered core. Without water to remove the heat (steam is a terrible, terrible conductor compared to water), the zircaloy cladding must have ruptured, releasing the cesium and iodine isotopes.

    Those isotopes got out because the engineers had to keep venting steam into the building surrounding the reactor. When there's no water circulation, the only way to remove heat is by venting steam. The problem with that is that eventually, the water level drops below the tops of the fuel rods, and then you're not providing sufficient heat transfer to ensure their structural integrity. The reactor vessel itself maintained its integrity, but when that building blew up (extremely high pressure/temperature steam can split into oxygen and hydrogen, and, uh, hydrogen bad), then some of those short-lived fission products escaped. Again, from what I gather, not enough to really do any harm to anyone or the environment, but, yeah, enough to really make people uncomfortable with the idea of nuclear power.

    Of course, the burning of coal and oil is actually far more destructive to the planet as a whole, and claims far more lives each year in industrial, mining, drilling, generating, and, oh yeah, military terms than nuclear ever can.

    Nuclear power would have an easier time if the world's first awareness of the power of the atom hadn't involved incinerating two cities. People think "nuclear explosion/meltdown" and instantly envision a mushroom cloud, even though that kind of runaway reaction is completely impossible. Chernobyl is the absolute worst kind of reactor accident, and as you noted, that was an inherently dangerous type of reactor. If you've ever read that incident report, you'll also note that the day of the accident, it was staffed by every idiot they could find violating every safety protocol imaginable.

  • Well, I am not "reflexivley" pro-nuclear, nor do I think it's an economic or viable alternative to gas and coal. I've writen about this a lot but just to recap: uranium mining is very polluting and yes, people (mostly brown people of the Native American type who cares about them amiright?) have been sickened and seen their communities polluted. There is "peak uranium." And there is the cost of building a nuclear reactor and the time expended not to mention the traditional fossil fuels used in said construction, all of which make nuclear not exactly "green" and carbon neutral.

    And then we have the waste issue. We STILL do not know what to do with the waste. Bury it in the ground for 100,000 years? Are you fucking kidding me? This is our great solution? When you consider climate change and greenhouse gases are essentially a waste issue, why the hell would we change one waste problem for another?

    And finally we have the safety issue. Sure modern nuke plants are safer than the older ones. But as your own post points out, that's only true until it isn't.

    My word to pro-nuclear folks in the U.S. Congress (like my Senator Lamar Alexander): you want your nukes? Fine. Repeal the Price-Anderson Act which sets a liability cap on nuclear accidents and essentially socializes the losses from a major nuclear disaster. Free hand of the market, y'all! Let's make the nuclear power industry put its money where its mouth is and show how clean and cheap this energy is, why do't we? Make the nuclear power industry pay to clean up its own messes. Can't do it? Hmm .. .maybe not so clean and cheap after all.

  • Oooops. Make that "reflexively" ANTI=nuclear. Damn. That whole rant and I got the entire thing wrong.

    Need. More. Coffee.

    I blame that whole "spring forward" nonsense.

  • Even if Nuclear power is clean & the perfect solution (I am far from convinced that it is.) Where are you going to build fail safe (safe from failure) reactor? (NIMBY) Who is going to pay for it? (Deficit, no new taxes, drill baby drill)

  • displaced Capitalist says:

    Ed said:

    the people in charge attempted to save the economic value of the reactors rather than immediately recognizing the magnitude of the crisis and initiating their last-ditch safety measure:

    But this is human nature, right? When earthquakes hit, experts say "Drop, get under cover, and hold on" but when a disaster strikes people panic and all that training goes out the window. Footage from office buildings in Japan show people standing, running, and trying to keep file cabinets from falling. (I'm paraphrasing Farhad Manjoo on Slate.com)

    It reminds me of a time I held on to a glass key chain when I noticed that the cap was starting to get ground down by the metal clasp. I was just being a cheapskate (it's not like key chains are prohibitively expensive) and I kept it. When the damn thing finally broke I slashed my hand so bad I needed many many stitches. It was stupid of me, but I imagine it happens all the time.

  • We don't need nuclear. We just need to stop being wasteful jerks with our energy.

    We need to redesign our houses so they either trap heat or let it go. Cooling via AC uses too much energy, while simple things such as passive solar and white rooftops can cut energy use substantially.

    We need to stop using so damn much oil to make home heating oil. Those homes should be fit with new electrical and natural gas heaters. This will lead to more efficient heating and less use of dwindling oil. It wouldn't hurt to insulate better, too.

    We need to turn off the fucking lights at night. We aren't showing the bad guys that we're home: we're just showing them where our stuff is. Get a barking dog, morons. Of course, you'll probably get robbed in the day since you live in a neighborhood where the neighbors don't know each other and every garage contains a stored fortune in personal papers and sellable tools. But that's another story.

    And we need to stop pretending that the entire world is at 68 fucking degrees all the time. Sometimes it's hot and we can stop dressing like we're in a corporate headquarters or David Letterman's studio. And sometimes it's cold and Jimmy Carter was right: try a fucking sweater, dumbfucks!

    And for fuck's sake, get a car that doesn't waste so much fucking gasoline!

    I read that America can handle an energy crisis better than most places because we're so damn wasteful that it wouldn't require infrastructure changes so much as attitude adjustments. The way I see the GOP acting, I realize the truth of this. But the way I see the GOP getting support, I fear that we as a nation are too stupid and stubborn to change.

  • It's amazing how many people are rushing to declare this a disaster that proves nuclear isn't viable. I've taken a couple other lessons from this:

    – 50 year old nuclear reactors survived an earthquake 5x what they were designed for, and with only minor radiation leaks. Japan is saying maybe 160 folks exposed, and to what level we don't know.

    – Maybe building a nuclear reactor right next to the ocean on a vulnerable fault line isn't the greatest idea, but that doesn't mean there aren't viable locations.

    – Rather than indicating the severity of the incident, Japan's response indicates a very well thought out emergency plan with an abundance of caution. They've quickly responded with a "worst case scenario" response for an event that seems far from worst case. We should take this as an example of how to react to nuclear risks.

  • Pro nuclear power? Glad to hear it, we'll build it in your neighbourhood.
    Given the current US political climate it will be built owned and run by the Koch Bros. using only non-union labour 'cuz the free market rules!
    When it comes online in 2023 three years late and 300% over budget because of do-overs and $12/gallon diesel you will pay whatever they charge. When it is shut down early for safety reasons, or if by some miracle it reaches the end of it's serviceable life, you will continue to pay for it's decommissioning forever because there is no place to put the waste and the whole fucking thing glows in the dark.

    Or you could build windmills and solar farms and geothermal plants and smart grids and passive buildings and on and on and have money left over to look for dilithium crystals. In the time it takes to build a nuke you could have half the country running on renewables.

    But my money is on the nukes. They are the most efficient way for the rich to get lots more money from the government. No doubt President Palin/Bachmann will see the necessity of this when they offer to name the first plant after her.

    Nuclear power may indeed have a place in the grid of a stable responsible country. Let me know how that works out.

  • In the time it takes to build a nuke you could have half the country running on renewables.

    Since we're living in Fantasyland, please feel free to put the new nuke plant in my neighborhood. I WANT superpowers.

  • SaltyJustice says:

    The big problem with nuclear power is not safety, surprisingly not waste, and it's not construction/decommission costs either. The big problem is energy loss.

    If you were to extract, say, Cobalt ore out of the ground, it would cost you x amount of petroleum burnt for energy. You can then write out the Cobalt cost as y Cobalt for 1 Petroleum unit, and find out if it's cost efficient.

    For Uranium (Pitchblende before processing) you're extracting the material to generate energy. You have to spend energy in the form of Petroleum to get the energy from Uranium, and in almost all of the existing concentrations THIS IS A NET-NEGATIVE. Just because the value of Uranium is presently higher than the equivalent value of Petroleum does not mean you actually gain energy by extracting it, you're losing energy and gaining money. This is why Capitalists love it while Environmentalists hate it, and it's why everyone should be anti-nuclear.

    There are some locations where Pitchblende can be extracted for less energy cost than the Petroleum lost, and there are other purposes for Uranium (like medical imaging and some other radio-isotope stuff) that give a proper reason to extract it, then you can go ahead and worry about decommissioning and waste costs. Energy production using Uranium is mostly, though, a bad idea before it even starts, and the rest of the debate is quibbling over the margins.

  • Pro nuclear power? Glad to hear it, we'll build it in your neighbourhood.

    Please do. Even a worst-case scenario won't be as much of an ecological disaster as the Kingston Fossil Plant accident back in 2008.

    I'll agree with posts like Natalie's above — nuclear power on its own will not solve everything. I'm all for implementing it along with wind/solar/geothermal in places where the geography makes it possible. Still, it's a hell of a lot safer than the vast majority of what we're using right now.

  • "Fast forward to today and note what is happening in Fukushima at the nuclear facility. The reactors were designed to withstand an earthquake, but not an 8.9 earthquake followed by a tsunami."

    The thing about that is that Japan is sitting right on the Ring of Fire, which is well-known for producing the most powerful earthquakes. And as a matter of fact, there just was another earthquake in New Zealand and one in Chile last year (both also on the ROF), and I seem to recall that the tsunami warning system for the Pacific Ocean was initiated and supported by the government of Japan because of the Japanese experience with earthquakes and tsunami. There are documentaries on the History Channel and National Geographic which seem to do everything except conduct a war dance for the people of California to tell them that they need to start preparing for the Big One. The lack of preparedness for the Haiti earthquake and the 2004 earthquake/tsunami can be understood a little better (although the Haitian government did have some advance notice from geologists of the possibility that they could have an earthquake) because of the rarity of those events in those parts of the world (prior to 2004, the last tsunami in the Indian Ocean was when Krakatoa blew in the 1880s) and because Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. Japan, on the other hand, knows that earthquakes are a thing where they are and they are also a wealthy and technologically advanced nation. So it can't really be said that Japanese engineers wouldn't discount the possibility of such an earthquake, so much as they decided that an 8.9 was so remote a possibility that it wasn't worth spending the money. Obviously they gambled wrong.

    As to liberals being opposed to nuclear power, I agree with what was said above about how people can only be lied to so many times. A thing is only safe until suddenly it isn't. That bridge which fell in Minneapolis (incidentally, a few weeks after I was driving through there for a family event, although I didn't go over that bridge), was given a D rating by whatever bridge authority hands out those grades, and after it fell the Powers that Be were saying that it had been safe to drive on. I couldn't help thinking that the fact that it FELL SUDDENLY AND WITHOUT WARNING would indicate that it was not, in fact, safe to drive on, and the meebling about how the bridge was safe was some sort of snow job to keep people from demanding a better accountability for the safety of bridges. Which has obviously worked, since we're still merrily going along with our deteriorating infrastructure.

  • @SaltyJustice: One thing I've seen proposed that would probably solve any cost-of-extraction issues is the usage of thorium reactors instead of uranium. It's several times more abundant than uranium, far easier to extract, supposedly 200 times more efficient for power generation, and can at least in theory be made self-sustaining.

    Mind you, I can't say for certain how accurate the latter two claims would turn out to be in actual use, or how much they would outweigh the disadvantages of the thorium fuel cycle; still, as with existing nuclear technology, I find it hard to believe that it'd be much worse than the current situation.

  • One note about the supposed stupidity of waiting to use seawater. Using uncontrolled sources of water as they finally did in this case is ALWAYS the plan of last resort, used only if nothing else works to cool the core. They wouldn't have jumped straight to the last step for two reasons. One, a little debatable, is that doing so would have violated the emergency procedures in place. Two, and this is the reason that one is the case, is that cleaning up and decontaminating a plant that has been corroded by seawater is like six billion times harder and more dangerous, and with potentially higher illness and loss of life to personnel, than otherwise.

  • displaced Capitalist says:

    Bill O'Reilly's "Tide goes in, tide goes out" argument has been debunked! In Japan, the tide went in, and did not come out.

  • SaltyJustice says:

    My area of expertise is extraction/exploration (I'm a Geologist, not an Engineer) and we barely even discuss Thorium, mostly because nobody uses it. Since you mentioned it, I did a bit of research and it's stunning that nobody is using it. Uranium is indefensible, but Thorium looks quite promising. When people like Ed over there talk about dependence on foreign oil and all that, they make it seem so hopeless with their pie-charts and graphs.

    Turns out, it's purely a political failure. The science has been available for decades, waiting for us to all grow up.

  • The US is the Saudi Arabia of Coal and at least the Venezuela of Natural Gas. The Lord asked Moses in Ex 4

  • burp…excuse me!

    The US is the Saudi Arabia of Coal and at least the Venezuela of Natural Gas. The Lord said to Moses in Ex 4 “What you got in your hand, boy?” I agree that it is an apt question. IMO we have a bunch of the aforementioned “in our hand” and that they should be the cornerstone of our energy policy. While we need to be good stewards of all that we have been given, we need to use what we have been given.

    Let’s take a look at wind energy which is the most attractive of the alt energy production methods w/ electricity costs coming in around $0.12 per kwh

    The CIA estimate of electrical energy usage for 2008 was 4.1E09 Mwh which is about 11.2E06 Mwh/day.

    Utility grade wind turbines come in capacities ranging from about 700 kW to 5 Mw. For the sake of easy math, choose 1 Mw rigs running 11 hours per day (or any combination you want that makes 11 Mwh/day).

    As you can see, that calculates to about 1 million turbines required to meet 100% of the 2008 electrical requirement. This little exercise doesn’t account for the reality of needing a spinning reserve of more conventional production facilities to smooth the outage bumps inherent in wind power.

    The capital costs here are immense per the DOE. It is about $2E06 per Mw installed which means our 1 million turbines would cost about 2 Trillion dollars. Plus, you need switch gear and xmission facilities to get the juice from where the wind blows to where the folks live.

    There are also well documented environmental issues associated with wind power. Low frequency vibrations produced by the rotors have proven to be annoying to humans who live near and work at wind farms. Vibro-Acoustic Disease (VAD) is well established in the clinical literature. It has been amply documented and is readily detected by a variety of diagnostic tests. (See for ex. Dr. Nina Pierpont, MD, PhD) This argues for isolating the farms from populated areas as much as possible.

  • John Harrold says:

    what happens if the backup generators are also damaged?

    My understanding is that they also have batteries as a temporary backup for the generators. (I don't remember where I read it :))

  • My understanding that thorium's political problem is that the fuel cycle doesn't support weapons production, so it's unpopular with Air Force generals and their ilk.

    All these problems would be less difficult if we hadn't allowed the world's human population to rise above a couple billion. Contraception is the highest-leverage energy technology.

  • It's amazing how many people are rushing to declare this a disaster that proves nuclear isn't viable.

    I don't see that. I see a lot of people rushing to declare this disaster proves nuclear has NEVER been viable, no matter how much we lie to ourselves otherwise.

  • The Moar You Know says:

    Thorium reactors = no waste. And safe. India is going to them in a big way. But we won't.

    I fear that this incident is the end of nuclear power in the West, save for the one nation whose energy infrastructure is already so built around it that they cannot afford to switch to anything else; France.

    Endgame: Most of America starves to death when the inevitable SHTF in the Middle East and we are left without a viable hydrocarbon supply to fuel our early 20th century energy infrastructure. Asia ascendant, while at the insistence of the terrified masses, we end up trying to feed our 300 million by plowing wheat fields with donkeys. At least India speaks English, so I could possibly emigrate, if I could only swim there.

  • We just need to stop being wasteful jerks with our energy.

    Well THAT'S never going to happen. And bb–coal and natural gas are not "clean" nor renewable. Sure, there's a lot of coal in them there hills, but you gotta mow down a lot of mountains for that coal. Natural gas? How do you like having a fucked-up water supply because the gas companies like them some fracking?

  • @SouthernBeale

    Yeah, using the same tired arguments.

    This claim of lifecycle GHG/Energy use being larger than traditional fossil fuels is absolutely wrong: http://www.nirs.org/climate/background/sovacool_nuclear_ghg.pdf

    Besides, what are we making wind and solar out of these days? Fucking fairy dust?

    The entire quantity of waste from the ENTIRE history of nuclear generation would fill a 100 yard football field only 7 yards deep. This is absolutely incomparable to the catastrophic risk of climate change. To suggest otherwise shows a "head in the sand" attitude about the risks of climate change, and if peak Uranium drives up the price of fuel, then reprocessing becomes economically viable. Not to mention the prospects for Thorium fueled reactors as mentioned elsewhere in this post, the development of which is only hampered by this knee jerk NIMBY reaction.

    Extraction is an issue, but the energy per gram of uranium is much higher than that of coal or even natural gas, thus the quantities extracted are of much lower impact over all. Are there communities stretching essentially the length of Appalachia suffering from Uranium extraction? Not that I'm aware of. Coal is the number one enemy, period.

    Furthermore, the land use footprint of nuclear is much smaller than wind or solar, which is of big concern when talking about providing energy for densely populated cities far from wind and solar resources. These energy sources can also not deliver baseload power than turns on 100% of the time you need it.

    No energy source is perfect, wind, solar, and nuclear included. Each of them is right for certain locations, certain niches in an energy portfolio, and taking any of them off the table demonstrates an idealized (to put it lightly) understanding of world wide energy demand.

    If you believe the findings of the IPCC, the small localized risk of damage from nuclear generation (the risk of which is overblown) is far and away worth averting the large scale ecosystem wide massive extinctions and losses of human life totaling in the millions we'll see from a warmer planet. We need to bring every low carbon energy source online as quickly as we can, nuclear included.

  • @The Moar…

    "Endgame: Most of America starves to death when the inevitable SHTF in the Middle East and we are left without a viable hydrocarbon supply to fuel our early 20th century energy infrastructure."

    Did I miss something? I thought the US only gets about 20% of our oil from the M.E. Our big suppliers are Canada, Mexico, and Hugo Chavez.

    Other than having to pay high market prices in case of SHTF. we should still be able to still get access. By then, we might wake up and pump some of our own oil, who knows?


  • Thorium reactors can actually burn the current waste, too. Plus, the US has lots of it (and the world supply could produce enough power for 10,00 years at the current world usage) and going to Thorium would also make production of heavy rare earths possible in the US. there are groups trying to get various government agencies to build Thorium reactors as part of the critical/strategic need for heavy rare earths.

    In addition to India, China is also starting up some Thorium reactors.

  • @bb

    Actually US oil production has been going up for the last 5 years. However there are limits to what we have and what we can produce.

    We picked the low-hanging fruit decades ago and what's left is expensive to get at.

    Sure, there's oil in shale but you're not going to like what it costs to get it out of there. That's a pricey barrel of oil before you even bring it to market just because of how much it cost to get at it. The same goes for oil 5 miles under the Gulf of Mexico.

    Oil is traded on the world market. So unless we had enough excess capacity to swing the price (and we don't) "drill baby drill" isn't going to bring us back to the days of $1/gallon gasoline.

  • Major Kong;

    No illusions about "Drill baby, etc" I said market price. The only thing drilling here does is possibly provide access to that oil.

    The compound problem is that nobody who owns any oil rights in the US will pump if they can't get the world market price. Further, if the gov restricts people to "pump here, sell here" they may also get some resistance.

    Refinery capacity could get into the mix. If we're maxed out, and you can sell your US pumped oil to China, for instance, but the gov won't let you – screw it, let it stay in the ground for a more favorable day.


  • jj: The only energy source that scales up to fossil fuel levels is solar: not geo, not wind, certainly not biofuels, and definitely not nuclear. Solar panels have their own resource constraints (silicon) but people are working on that.

    That's not right. Wind energy recoverable via 80-meter towers is five times total energy use (not just electricity use); this doesn't include plausible but still-unadopted systems like high-altitude wind power, which have the potential to generate far more. Also, refining silicon isn't necessarily a blocker for solar power; there are systems like solar-thermal (SEGS, the largest solar power plant in the world, is solar-thermal) which don't use photovoltaics, and are far cheaper to build. There are some nifty modular designs like the ones at the Maricopa Solar demonstration plant in Peoria, AZ, too. Wind, even offshore wind, is still cheaper than thermal solar, and much, much cheaper than photovoltaic.

    Thermal reactors don't fully burn the more dangerous fusion products; this is why there's a ten-thousand-year waste problem, and it's very literally waste. Pressurized- and boiling-water reactors are pretty much the worst imaginable designs for nuclear power. They produce long-lived waste, they have horrific (slow-neutron) fuel efficiency, and they're not passively safe. There are better designs, like liquid-metal breeder reactors, which produce a much smaller amount of high-level waste (I've seen estimates of about one ton per GW-year), which drops down to the radioactivity levels of the original ore in about two hundred years instead of ten thousand, extract over 99% of the available energy from their fuel (light-water reactors extract around 1%), and are passively safe, i.e., if every safety system fails, the reactor will shut itself down.

    Liquid metals have their own problems; the 1995 Monju accident in Japan didn't leak any radioactivity, but the management covered it up, which is in some ways more worrisome. There are designs that use molten lead instead of molten sodium as well, but it is, alas, impossible to design around people being people.

    SaltyJustice: Turns out, it's purely a political failure. The science has been available for decades, waiting for us to all grow up.

    Story of our fucking lives, mate.

    The fact is, capacity is expensive to build. Whether you're constructing nuclear power plants, wind farms or solar arrays, there's still a significant up-front capital cost. The end-state may be feasible, but it takes a lot of energy to get there in the first place. Whatever your thoughts on various types of generation (nuclear is evil! nuclear is the only technology with proven renewable capacity! solar power is really cool!), the facts on the ground remain the same.

  • @jj
    "The only energy source that scales up to fossil fuel levels is solar: not geo, not wind, certainly not biofuels, and definitely not nuclear."

    Biofuels from algae certainly has the potential to scale up to fossil fuel levels. Growing algae is much more efficient in the percent oil content, doesn't take aerable land (desert works fine), it isn't seasonal, and can be fed municipal waste. Personally it is the ultimate solar energy which can be stored and transported efficiently. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algae_fuel

    I personally detest the argument that any one renewable source needs to completely replace fosil fuels. It will be great to have a plethora of different sources feeding the grid. So stop doing the "how many windmills it will take to replace all of the coal plants" calculations.

  • Sorry I'm late for this thread.

    Everyone agrees that the old GE boiling water reactors have safety issues, even compared to the pressurized water reactors of the same era. There are some old memos suggesting that they should not have been approved at all, and others that clearly imply that they only were approved in the US because at that time the same agency was responsible for safety and for promoting nuclear power (a conflict of interest that was fixed later, but long after there were dozens of BWRs in service)

    The big mistake was not preparing for a tsunami as large as occurred. All the reactors survived the quake proper, and shut down as designed. Offsite power was lost in the quake, but the backup diesel generators operated as designed, providing cooling for the decay heat (still many megawatts for several weeks). There was a tsunami seawall, but it was overtopped. That destroyed the fuel tanks for the diesel generators, and flooded the rooms containing the generators and the electrical connections to the backup cooling pumps, at least for reactors 1-4. There were 2 more reactors on the Fusushima 1 site where the backup generators survived, and other nuclear plants on the NE japan coast that also came through the tsunami OK (shut down, with diesel backup cooling for decay heat).

    If the diesel generators and their fuel, and the electrical connections, were at higher elevation, even in the same building as the reactor instead of in the basement, or the seawall were higher, the only issue would have been refilling the diesel fuel tanks every few days, until the off-site electrical grid is repaired.

    That said, the design requirement for a reactor should really be walk-away safety, where natural physical processes are sufficient to shut down the chain reaction and also deal with the decay heat, with no external power and ideally with no moving parts or consumables. The PIUS reactor concept uses a very tall waterfilled containment designed so if you walk away, borated water is sucked into the core by convection which stops the chain reaction, and the natural convection flow is sufficient to deal with the decay heat indefinitely. You do have to add some water every few weeks to make up for evaporation (the core is about 30 meters below the surface, so there's not much of a hurry.

    You must pay equal attention to spent fuel, as Fukushima has shown. It is possible to design storage "pools" where air convection alone would keep the fuel rods cool enough that fission products would not be released, even if all the water from the pool evaporates. But, that takes more space and thus more money. In the US, politics has prevented creating a safe central waste depository, so plants have overloaded their "temporary" spent fuel storage pools to the point that air convection won't keep the fuel elements from melting. They need active cooling and/or makeup water to replace evaporation. If you let such a pool boil dry, you get a bigger radiation release than Three Mile Island.

    If nuclear utilities had to buy insurance against boiling their spent fuel pools dry, and insurance companies charged proportionately to the risk implied by the spent fuel density in the pool, every utility would find that the economical thing to do is to dig many more pools so each one has low enough spent fuel density to be cooled by air convection, or to move spent fuel from pools to (well-proven but more expensive) dry-cask storage.

    Instead, the government limits liability for nuclear accidents to nearly nothing. Funny how the Republicans aren't in favor of this particular way of letting the free market do its work.

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