Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On Nuclear Power

The low activity on this blog for the past week comes as little surprise, we trust, owing to the arrival of baby Lucca in the world on Friday.

Friday, the 11th of March, will be known to the world not for Lucca's birthday but for other events that took place that day: a sequence of natural disasters in Japan whose destruction defies belief. An earthquake initially reported as an 8.9 and later revised to a 9.0; tsunamis that literally washed entire towns away; a volanic eruption; and of course the slowly, horribly unfolding catastrophe involving its nuclear power plants (a good explanation here).

Nuclear energy is frequently championed as an alternative to coal. Burning coal to generate electricity is too costly to the environment and must be phased out, much more quickly than human societies are willing to do. Scientists I follow regarding climate change, such as James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute, advocate nuclear power as a cleaner alternative to coal, since a nuclear plant does not produce carbon dioxide once it is operational -- and therefore does not contribute to global warming. President Obama also embraced nuclear energy in his most recent "state of the union" address when he described his priorities in energy policy.

In this advocacy, the dangers have been downplayed. Radioactive waste that lasts hundreds or even thousands of years. The plants take ten years to build and are extremely expensive. A new generation of nuclear plants in the U.S. would not appreciably affect global temperature for twenty years and there simply is not time. The plants are also water guzzlers, creating another environmental problem for some areas. And, finally, the risks of catastrophe, as in a seismic event similar to what took place on March 11 in Japan. We have two active nuclear power plants in southern California, near the San Andreas Fault. It can happen here. In fact, it is likely. What interests prevailed on us to build nuclear plants there? What is the matter with us?

By all means, nuclear research should continue, in case solutions to the disposal problem and security concerns can be found. Lobbying on behalf of building nuclear power plants as if this were some sort of panacea for our environmental predicament (which we spend most of our time ignoring anyway, even though rising sea levels are already affecting populated areas) should be turned back. The money would be better spent developing an infrastructure for renewable energy, reaching fair deals with landowners about transmission lines, and educating the public about power use to help us live well using less juice.

Japan may have dealt a blow to the nuclear industry this month, but it will be back. It came back after Chernobyl, after all. The lesson here is that nuclear energy is a large and risky investment, too large and too risky for its benefits. There are other areas where we could invest and reap greater benefits for human health and welfare; we just don't. It's really that simple: we don't.

Here is an interesting account of a business conference on renewable energy investment in the Americas. Read it carefully and you'll notice the "make or break" is whether business men get excited about potential profits, not about the benefit to humanity. In Cyprus, it is not uncommon for houses to have solar water heaters on the roof; why not in Florida? Because no one is making money off that yet. In some American nations, it is just easier to continue living on imported oil, rather than spend money to help wind farms supply power to the grid. There is little incentive to change habits and consume less, and in the U.S. those incentives are derided as socialism and tyranny (always synonymous). (The gummint wants to force us to use squiggly light bulbs!)

Meanwhile, communities drown. The New York Times began reporting about the effects of rising sea levels on Tuvalu back in 2007, but we still give ourselves the luxury of pretending this might not really be a problem.

Human beings are profoundly bad at confronting their most serious challenges. A viable and safe nuclear energy program is beyond our reach and susceptible to our greedy and dishonest tendencies. We do not wield power responsibly. It is time, then, to move away from nuclear power (while maintaining research) industries and to build industries that improve and proliferate the technology of renewable energy.

And it is high time we took down the nuclear plants near the San Andreas Fault. The expense of that will be appalling, but when the next major event on that fault line takes place, do we really want to deal with exposed and melting nuclear rods as well?

[Photo: Nuclear plant at San Onofre, California, built to withstand an earthquake significantly smaller than what scientists predict for the next quake on the San Andreas Fault. And we're just fine with that.]


Adam said...

Nuclear energy is not only costly to bulid and maintain, it is also costly to deconstruct. Deconstructions of plants that have been deactivated costs nearly the same as the initial construction of the plant. If all the costs are figured in (construction, deconstruction, storage of waste) the monetary benefits pretty much disappear. And this doesn't begin to account for the externalized costs to the envrionment and human health.

One positive aspect that may come out of this tragedy is Japan is the resulting perspective on nuclear energy here in the US. After Cherynobyl, we became hesitant and cautious about nuke energy. But I think we didnt' outright ban it because maybe we had the idea that it was communism and Russia's lack of control/know-how that led to the disaster. Here in Japan, we have a country that Americans generally look at as technologically savvy, intelligent, and competant. And if the shit can hit the fan this bad there, I think it may give more people here a less optimistic outlook on the future of nuclear energy.

Kelly said...

As I've said before, it doesn't matter what type of energy source one proposes, there will always be those who find with it. I'm not opposed to nuclear energy in the right setting. Wind power has come a long way, but personally I'm fascinated with solar power. I would love to generate all I need or more right here at my house.

Tell baby Lucca that I also share my birthday with a tragedy and it won't define who he is. Hope the family is doing well. How's Gabriel adapting to the change?

Kelly said...

That should have read "find fault with it". I should proof better before I hit submit!

Algernon said...

Assessing the considerable risks and dangers of nuclear energy is not mere "fault finding," as if people were just being ornery for the sake of it.

It would be a truer statement that energy always entails cost. Even renewable energy requires technology that is costly to build and uses metals that need to be mined. Solar panels, after all, don't grow on trees.

A reality-based cost/benefit analysis is not "fault finding." It is the basis of a rational energy policy.

Kelly said...

Good points, Algernon, but very often people are just not "rational". They have tunnel vision. Especially when it comes to the idea "that won't happen to me" or "I can't worry about that". Seldom do they look at the overall big picture of what is rational.

Algernon said...

You said it, Kelly, and that's what is going to kill us.

Pam said...

I heard one nuclear expert say that no energy source is risk free. With fossil fuels we risk global warming and depletion. Nuclear, as we're witnessing, has real risks. Renewable energy souces run the risk of not being able to produce the amount of energy we need.

As this person put it, we need to make our energy sources as risk averse as possible. Also, we need as many sources as possible in our energy tool box.

From what I understand the newer plant being built have more sophisticaed design for the cooling of the spent rods, one that doesn't depend on electricity or human involvement.

This is a potentially horrific disaster unfolding in Japan. But, I don't think taking future plants out of the mix is the way to go. I'm quite sure there will be rethinking and retooling current and future facilities.

Nathan said...

You know what, Kelly, I said this to someone else today. It's really dismissive to tell people who are passionate about an issue that they are "not being rational" - especially if those people also have good information to back up that passion. I'm sort of tired of the tyranny of reason we have in the West. It was people being so rational that led to things like dropping the atomic bomb.

I'm frequently looking at the big picture in detail and, at the same time, can be quite emotional, quite "idealistic," and sometimes completely outside of the box considered reasonable.

Nuclear power has plenty of defenders. It's getting subsidized by billions of our tax dollars annually here in the U.S. It doesn't need my voice. I stand against it firmly. To hell with more nuclear!

Until we invest as much money, time and energy into solar, wind, and other alternative sources as we have into nuclear over the past several decades, all talk that they aren't "viable" is nonsense.

Nathan said...

I'd like to add that I think there are different kinds of "irrational" responses. The folks who just flip into thoughtless around certain issues - this is destructive in my view. You see this in the abortion debates where people go into a wild emotional tunnel.

But you know, I have seen people, for example, condemn one of our Representatives here in Minnesota - Keith Ellison - for his passionate comments at the U.S. House hearings on Muslims in the same kind of terms. Because the man cried and was emotional, his views aren't valid. This is screwed up in my opinion.

Cool reason shouldn't be the only tool in our tool box either.

Kelly said...

It was not my intention to sound dismissive, Nathan. I apologize if my comment offended you, Algernon or anyone else.

Pam said...

I don't think you sounded dismissive, Sis. I'm one of those who thinks, done properly, with proper safeguards (and the newer plants that have been built have more safeguards and no longer store spent rods on top of reactors), nuclear should remain one of our energy sources.

Hardly the only one, I must add. We certainly do need to invest in and explore more renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

The truth is we can't eliminate fossil fuels for many years to come with enough renewable energy to meet our needs. Phasing it out will be well into the future.

I agree with the person who argued that all our energy sources carry risks or problems. That's just realism.

We've seen the risk of fossil fuels in play in the Gulf; we are seeing the risks in nuclear. The obvious risks in solar and/or wind are would be a lack of necessary supply.

We need to, for the time being, be open to all options.

Algernon said...

Well, Pam, that's the point of this post: a risk analysis of nuclear power as part of our energy policy. My risk analysis suggests that it is not cost-effective nor does it slow human-created global warming enough to make it worth the billions of dollars invested in it, including public revenue. Some will disagree with this analysis, but I note that it comes very close to the position of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Maybe you can pull some new technology out of your hat, Pam. Maybe you can build a reactor with multiple layers of protection that won't be broken by a 9.0 earthquake. Maybe you can build a nuclear plant that can be shut down quickly and safely in an emergency, and has foolproof security against espionage.

If so, the private companies profiting from the nuclear industry might just have a job for you.

Pam said...

I wish I could. However, I think the point of my post is that nothing is risk free and, for the immediat future, we don't have any viable options for making us non dependant on fossil fuels.

That we need to find and develop alternative souces of energy (solar, wind, etc,), but in the meantime we need what we already have to meet the demand.

Hopefully,there will be a future with no need for fossil fuels or nuclear energy or even natural gas. That, however, IS far in the future. In the interim we need to make the energy sources as safe as we are able. That's the best we can do for what we've got. Perhaps we won't build any more nuclear facilities in light of this fiasco in Japan. Brighter minds than mine will decide this.

As for new technology, there is still no way to ensure we could produce or capture enough solar or wind energy to meet the demand.

I don't think we can harness or control Mother Natures whims when it comes to disasters or weather. This is one variable we can't make risk free.

Nathan said...

When we invest as much time, energy, and money into solar, wind and other sources as we have in nuclear - which financially is probably at least a trillion dollars over the past 50 years - and have determined that we those options won't cut it and need the support of something like nuclear, perhaps all the claims that we have to have nuclear won't sound so hollow.

But when I hear people say things like "Oh, solar and wind can never make up the energy needs we have," I always say "How do you know? How could you know?" Because we don't know. We've never really tried.

I just wrote a comment on my blog saying I'd support funding going to R&D around safety and waste disposal for the nuclear facilities we already have. This is needed. But you know, I'd feel a hell of a lot better about any funding towards nuclear if it wasn't going to some money grubbing corporation that places the bottom line above everything else.

Also, I think it's really worth taking a look at the research the Union of Concerned Scientists have done - as Algernon pointed out.


I have learned not only about some of the very questionable cost vs. benefit variables, but also about how to understand what's happening in Japan right now.

Nathan said...

And again, just to beat a dead horse, our energy demand here in the U.S. is beyond excessive. We need to wake up to the fact that our pampered lives are helping to destroy the planet.

Pam said...

Nathan, I agree that we need to spend the money and effort to do much more exploration of wind and solar energy sourses, among other green options. Most rational people wouldn't, I dare say, disagree with that.

I also think we should make sure the nuclear plants we have now are as risk-averse as possible.

I think most of us, or at least many of us, have now begun to attempt to lessen our carbon footprints in ways that we are able ( recycling, energy usage, etc.). I try to drive less and combine needed outings as much as possible.

Here in my area there is little mass transit for everyday needs. Cars are a necessity. If I were able to afford a new car I would definitely consider a hybrid. I can't and my current vehicle must undergo a yearly inspection to ensure I'm not polluting the environment.

If I were building a new house or able to afford to retrofit my home with sloar panels and other energy-efficient items I would do so. As I said, what I do is try to make my home as energy efficient as I possibly can.

Perhaps we will, in light of what's going on in Japan, not build any new nuclear reactors. Perhaps we will take whatever steps necessary to ensure, as much as possible, the safety of the ones we have. (I read an article that said of all our current reactors the one at Indian Point "I think", in Penn. is the most likely to have problems.)

Mother Nature is unpredictable and, at times, ruthless. Solar, wind, earthquakes, floods, etc....these are, sadly,inevitable obstacles to all our best efforts.

And yes, our energy demand in the U.S. is excesssive, but, the demand of the emerging economies in the world will soon demand more of the supply than we do. If we can't control our own demand, how do we control or curb that of other countries?

One way or other we are going to have to depend more on our own resources and resourcefulness to supply our own country's energy demands. That goes for fossil as well as alternative sources. Energy issues are a global problem that requires, to a large extent, local solutions.

Algernon said...

A couple of things come up here.

One is the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecies. "Wind and solar infrastructure are not in place to take over significant parts of the power grid in the U.S., therefore we may as well not bother investing significantly in them." This position will keep us dependent on imported oil and other fossil fuels, and will also provide a case for nuclear energy.

The investment disposition should actually be reversed. We should be spending billions to build the renewable infrastructure, as some other countries have done successfully; and continue to research nuclear technology in case a future generation finds a way to contain nuclear fission safely, power down safely, dispose of the waste, and to do so at a reasonable economic cost. Nuclear simply is not there yet.

"Nothing is risk-free." This is a true statement but doesn't shed any light on the issue of risk analysis. You can say "make it as risk averse as possible" but these are not magic words that can conjure a preferred reality. There are improvements in nuclear technology since my childhood, but there still persists tremendous risks, with consequences that so quickly become disastrous. And there is still no solution to the disposal problem. We have spent rods rusting on train cars because no one wants the waste anywhere near their communities.

The survival of civilization does not depend on nuclear energy. The enormous profits, underwritten by public money, are what is at stake and we live in a civilization where the interests of profit matter far more than the well-being of humans. It's not a nice thing to have to say but it's a cold hard fact. The realpolitik here is so cold I'd almost wonder if it could cool a fuel rod.

quid said...


I agree that California should proceed with a plan to take down Onofre and (is it Diablo?) the second nuclear reactor ... I know that time will need to elapse for alternatives, but I think shutting down operations on the San Andreas fault is a necessity.


Pam said...

I don't believe I said we shouldn't be investing in wind and solar. I simply said that, for the time being, they could not produce enough energy for our demand. I totally agree that we should be spending more, much more, on the technology needed to harness these sources of energy.

As for our current nuclear facilities and waste. They are a reality and, whether we want to get rid of them or stop using them, as you said, we still have to find a way to eliminate the waste.

Alg, it would be wonderful if we were living in a future with no need to depend on fossil fuels or nuclear or natural gas, etc. I hope we work toward that reality in this country.

That's just not the current reality and I can only do what I can to reduce my carbon footprint.

I'm in no way suggesting that we preserve the status quo. I agree with all your points about what we need to do, on what would be best for us and the world. We need to do more and it starts with each of us.

Algernon said...

"I simply said that, for the time being, they could not produce enough energy for our demand." That is what you said, Pam, and that is what I referred to as the self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course they will not produce enough energy for our demand as long as we do not invest. That is the point we return to over and over again.

There is also a conversation that might have to take place about demand. The lifestyle to which we are accustomed in the United States requires a lot of power. We can live well using less.

Pam said...

It might be, as you say, a "self-fulfilling prophecy", but it's also a fact. Right now we can't. I didn't say anything about investment, I'm all for that. At this point in time we need the energy sources we currently depend on. Even when we do start investing ( and I'm not in control of that )in alternate sources such as wind, solar, geo thermal, etc., it will be some time before we can totally free ourselves from the need for our current sources of energy.

Perhaps we can live well using less. That's something that starts with the individual and extends out from there. As I said, I do what I can to make my carbon footprint smaller.

All your points are valid; I don't disagree. The facts are the facts. We need the energy sources we depend on now, even WHILE developing alternatives (and of course we need to invest more in these! no disagreement!). Changing our lifestyles here is easy to say, difficult to implement on a broad basis. Do you see the government legislating how much power we can use as inidividuals? How realistic is that? How do impose that or implement rationing our energy usage?:

Changing the lifestyle of an entire country is pretty unrealistic unless it's done one person at a time. YOu and I might be inclined to or forced to do well with less. There are others who don't see it that way and will choose not to.

We're a vast country and not all of it is conducive to mass transit. More and more cities are investing in light rail, etc. They are in my area. But, you can't force Americans to give up their cars or their electronic toys, etc. This is something that is not going back into the box. We will have to find alternative energy sources.

Living well with less is my choice and yours and many others. It's either a choice or a necessity, it's not going to be a decree from the government in this country.

Everything you are advocating and aspire to are worthy and valid and should be concerns for all of us. Bottom line is we need, as you say, to invest in the world we want for our kids and grandkids. I agree, totally. But, we have to begin with where we are today, right now, the ways things are at this time. Change will not happen overnight however much you might want it too. That's not a cop out or defeatist attitude. It's just reality. The goal is a better tomorrow building upon or away from today.

Algernon said...

I don't understand your position in practical terms. You seem to be saying the investment is needed, and that we need to "start today." Right! We need to re-allocate our investment TODAY so that we can feed our power grids with less dangerous technologies and renewable fuel resources.

But that doesn't seem to be what you are saying. I'm just saying I don't get it. I read your comments and it sounds like you are saying "yes" to what needs to be done and yet putting the brakes on when it comes to actually moving in a new direction.

Pam said...

No, I'm not saying put the brakes on anything. I guess we're not on the same wavelength or living the same reality.

In my reality, no matter how much we invest in or move in a new direction, we will not, in 5 or even 10 years live in a country where there is no need for our current energy sources. We will be much LESS dependant, but not totally independant of them.

Like I said, I don't see where we disagree. All I"m saying is that we won't wake up tomorrow in a new world free of excess or need for our current energy sources.

I"m all for re-allocating our investment toward alternative energy sources. I don't believe I stated otherwise.

As for the individual American, however, I said that we don't change a way of living or thinking en masse. We're not a particularly collective society. We tend more toward individualism. Good or not so good, that's the way we tend to be in this country. I simply said it's not easy to implement an entirely new way of thinking or direction for this country. That, Alg, is just a reality.

I don't really see where our views are that different. We need change, we need it yesterday, we need to start that new direction today. How we get there and how quickly we get there is the variable.

Algernon said...

We're getting somewhere in our conversation.

"we won't wake up tomorrow in a new world free of excess or need for our current energy sources."

Right. No one here has suggested we will. So no controversy.

"I'm all for re-allocating our investment toward alternative energy sources. I don't believe I stated otherwise."

Okay, we have clarity and even agreement.

"As for the individual American, however, I said that we don't change a way of living or thinking en masse. We're not a particularly collective society. We tend more toward individualism. Good or not so good, that's the way we tend to be in this country. I simply said it's not easy to implement an entirely new way of thinking or direction for this country. That, Alg, is just a reality."

Ah, okay. This "reality" is actually an ideology. When fossil fuel becomes too expensive to produce, prices shoot up, and alternatives are not in place (which is what I'm predicting will happen), there will be no choice. Changes in habit that *seem* radical will be forced upon us, and some of the workable solutions will be collective in nature.

There is no evidence that we are biologically hardwired to be individualists. There are lots of things we do collectively, out of necessity or because it works better or other reasons. When we need to take that seriously, we will.

A lot of "realities" are in fact ideologies, and so is the notion that Americans can't pull together and work cooperatively to confront our biggest challenges. Like I say to my kids: not buyin' it.

Pam said...

Agreed, and you might be right under the cirumstances you outlined. If push comes to shove I think the American people will pull together in order to meet these challenges.

I'm just not convinced that we'll willingly change our ideologies unless we're forced to. I hope I'm wrong.

Petteri Sulonen said...

"When fossil fuel becomes too expensive to produce, prices shoot up, and alternatives are not in place (which is what I'm predicting will happen), there will be no choice. Changes in habit that *seem* radical will be forced upon us, and some of the workable solutions will be collective in nature."

I think this is exactly what would happen, should fossile fuel become too expensive to produce.

I'm not as optimistic as you are about the rest of it, though.

Trouble is, I don't think it will become too expensive, because the alternatives are there. The problem is that the way the current incentives are stacked, the alterantives are worse than what we have no. There's no shortage of coal or gas, and there's an enormous amount of oil locked up in tar sands and deep offshore, and all of that is viable to extract at current oil and coal prices and with the perverse incentives that don't price in externalities, specifically ecological damage.

And the ecological damage to get at those reserves will make Deepwater Horizon look like a minor oopsie. Hydrofracking, deep mining, and tar extraction are incredibly nasty things. But that's what we'll get if things are left to themselves. The economy is like water; it finds the lowest ground by itself unless we build dams.

That means that if we don't take some pretty serious political action, we'll be burning fossil fuels at our current rate – or a rate that's only insignificantly lower than our current rate – for another couple of centuries. I shudder to think what this place will look like after that.

So investment in sustainable energy is absolutely vital, and we need political action to keep those poisons safely where they are, in the ground.

Pam said...

" The economy is like water; it finds the lowest ground by itself unless we build dams."

Love this analogy!!!!!!