Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fukushima Update: How Safe Can a Nuclear Meltdown Get?

by Will Boisvert

Last summer I posted an essay here arguing that nuclear power is a lot safer than people think—about a hundred times safer than our fossil fuel-dominated power system. At the time I predicted that the impact of the March, 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident in Japan would be small. A year later, now that we have a better fix on the consequences of the Fukushima meltdowns, I’ll have to revise “small” to “microscopic.” The accumulating data and scientific studies on the Fukushima accident reveal that radiation doses are and will remain low, that health effects will be minor and imperceptible, and that the traumatic evacuation itself from the area around the plant may well have been unwarranted. Far from the apocalypse that opponents of nuclear energy anticipated, the Fukushima spew looks like a fizzle, one that should drastically alter our understanding of the risks of nuclear power.

Anti-nuke commentators like Arnie Gundersen continue to issue forecasts of a million or more long-term casualties from Fukushima radiation. (So far there have been none.) But the emerging scientific consensus is that the long-term health consequences of the radioactivity, particularly cancer fatalities, will be modest to nil. At the high end of specific estimates, for example, Princeton physicist Frank von Hippel, writing in the nuke-dreading Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, reckons an eventual one thousand fatal cancers arising from the spew.

Now there’s a new peer-reviewed paper by Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson and John Ten Hoeve that predicts remarkably few casualties. (Jacobson, you may remember, wrote a noted Scientific American article proposing an all-renewable energy system for the world.) They used a supercomputer to model the spread of radionuclides from the Fukushima reactors around the globe, and then calculated the resulting radiation doses and cancer cases through the year 2061. Their result: a probable 130 fatal cancers, with a range from 15 to 1300, in the whole world over fifty years. (Because radiation exposures will have subsided to insignificant levels by then, these cases comprise virtually all that will ever occur.) They also simulated a hypothetical Fukushima-scale meltdown of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California, and calculated a likely cancer death toll of 170, with a range from 24 to 1400.

To put these figures in context, pollution from American coal-fired power plants alone kills about 13,000 people every year. The Stanford estimates therefore indicate that the Fukushima spew, the only significant nuclear accident in 25 years, will likely kill fewer people over five decades than America’s coal-fired power plants kill every five days to five weeks. Worldwide, coal plants kill over 200,000 people each year—150 times more deaths than the high-end Fukushima forecasts predict over a half century.

We’ll probably never know whether these projected Fukushima fatalities come to pass or not. The projections are calculated by multiplying radiation doses by standard risk factors derived from high-dose exposures; these risk factors are generally assumed—but not proven—to hold up at the low doses that nuclear spews emit. Radiation is such a weak carcinogen that scientists just can’t tell for certain whether it causes any harm at all below a dose of 100 millisieverts (100 mSv). Even if it does, it’s virtually impossible to discern such tiny changes in cancer rates in epidemiological studies. Anti-nukes give that fact a paranoid spin by warning of “hidden cancer deaths.” But if you ask me, risks that are too small to measure are too small to worry about.

The Stanford study relied on a computer simulation, but empirical studies of radiation doses support the picture of negligible effects from the Fukushima spew.

In a direct measurement of radiation exposure, officials in Fukushima City, about 40 miles from the nuclear plant, made 37,000 schoolchildren wear dosimeters around the clock during September, October and December, 2011, to see how much radiation they soaked up. Over those three months, 99 percent of the participants absorbed less than 1 mSv, with an average external dose of 0.26 mSv. Doubling that to account for internal exposure from ingested radionuclides gives an annual dose of 2.08 mSv. That’s a pretty small dose, about one third the natural radiation dose in Denver, with its high altitude and abundant radon gas, and many times too small to cause any measurable up-tick in cancer rates. At the time, the outdoor air-dose rate in Fukushima was about 1 microsievert per hour (or about 8.8 mSv per year), so the absorbed external dose was only about one eighth of the ambient dose. That’s because the radiation is mainly gamma rays emanating from radioactive cesium in the soil, which are absorbed by air and blocked by walls and roofs. Since people spend most of their time indoors at a distance from soil—often on upper floors of houses and apartment buildings—they are shielded from most of the outdoor radiation.

Efforts to abate these low-level exposures will be massive—and probably redundant. The Japanese government has budgeted $14 billion for cleanup over thirty years and has set an immediate target of reducing radiation levels by 50 percent over two years. But most of that abatement will come from natural processes—radioactive decay and weathering that washes radio-cesium deep into the soil or into underwater sediments, where it stops irradiating people—that  will reduce radiation exposures on their own by 40% over two years. (Contrary to the centuries-of-devastation trope, cesium radioactivity clears from the land fairly quickly.) The extra 10 percent reduction the cleanup may achieve over two years could be accomplished by simply doing nothing for three years. Over 30 years the radioactivity will naturally decline by at least 90 percent, so much of the cleanup will be overkill, more a political gesture than a substantial remediation. Little public-health benefit will flow from all that, because there was little radiation risks to begin with.

How little? Well, an extraordinary wrinkle of the Stanford study is that it calculated the figure of 130 fatal cancers by assuming that there had been no evacuation from the 20-kilometer zone around the nuclear plant. You may remember the widely televised scenes from that evacuation, featuring huddled refugees and young children getting wanded down with radiation detectors by doctors in haz-mat suits. Those images of terror and contagion reinforced the belief that the 20-km zone is a radioactive killing field that will be uninhabitable for eons. The Stanford researchers endorse that notion, writing in their introduction that “the radiation release poisoned local water and food supplies and created a dead-zone of several hundred square kilometers around the site that may not be safe to inhabit for decades to centuries.”

But later in their paper Jacobson and Ten Hoeve actually quantify the deadliness of the “dead-zone”—and it turns out to be a reasonably healthy place. They calculate that the evacuation from the 20-km zone probably prevented all of 28 cancer deaths, with a lower bound of 3 and an upper bound of 245. Let me spell out what that means: if the roughly 100,000 people who lived in the 20-km evacuation zone had not evacuated, and had just kept on living there for 50 years on the most contaminated land in Fukushima prefecture, then probably 28 of them—and at most 245—would have incurred a fatal cancer because of the fallout from the stricken reactors. At the very high end, that’s a fatality risk of 0.245 %, which is pretty small—about half as big as an American’s chances of dying in a car crash. Jacobson and Ten Hoeve compare those numbers to the 600 old and sick people who really did die during the evacuation from the trauma of forced relocation. “Interestingly,” they write, “the upper bound projection of lives saved from the evacuation is lower than the number of deaths already caused by the evacuation itself.”

That observation sure is interesting, and it raises an obvious question: does it make sense to evacuate during a nuclear meltdown?

In my opinion—not theirs—it doesn’t. I don’t take the Stanford study as gospel; its estimate of risks in the EZ strikes me as a bit too low. Taking its numbers into account along with new data on cesium clearance rates and the discrepancy between ambient external radiation and absorbed doses, I think a reasonable guesstimate of ultimate cancer fatalities in the EZ, had it never been evacuated, would be several hundred up to a thousand. (Again, probably too few to observe in epidemiological studies.) The crux of the issue is whether immediate radiation exposures from inhalation outweigh long-term exposures emanating from radioactive soil. Do you get more cancer risk from breathing in the radioactive cloud in the first month of the spew, or from the decades of radio-cesium “groundshine” after the cloud disperses? Jacobson and Ten Hoeve’s model assigns most of the risk to the cloud, while other calculations, including mine, give more weight to groundshine.

But from the standpoint of evacuation policy, the distinction may be moot. If the Stanford model is right, then evacuations are clearly wrong—the radiation risks are trivial and the disruptions of the evacuation too onerous. But if, on the other hand, cancer risks are dominated by cesium groundshine, then precipitate forced evacuations are still wrong, because those exposures only build up slowly. The immediate danger in a spew is thyroid cancer risk to kids exposed to iodine-131, but that can be counteracted with potassium iodide pills or just by barring children from drinking milk from cows feeding on contaminated grass for the three months it takes the radio-iodine to decay away. If that’s taken care of, then people can stay put for a while without accumulating dangerous exposures from radio-cesium.

Data from empirical studies of heavily contaminated areas support the idea that rapid evacuations are unnecessary. The Japanese government used questionnaires correlated with air-dose readings to estimate the radiation doses received in the four months immediately after the March meltdown in the townships of Namie, Iitate and Kawamata, a region just to the northwest of the 20-kilometer exclusion zone. This area was in the path of an intense fallout plume and incurred contamination comparable to levels inside the EZ; it was itself evacuated starting in late May. The people there were the most irradiated in all Japan, yet even so the radiation doses they received over those four months, at the height of the spew, were modest. Out of 9747 people surveyed, 5636 got doses of less than 1 millisievert, 4040 got doses between 1 and 10 mSv and 71 got doses between 10 and 23 mSv. Assuming everyone was at the high end of their dose category and a standard risk factor of 570 cancer fatalities per 100,000 people exposed to 100 mSv, we would expect to see a grand total of three cancer deaths among those 10,000 people over a lifetime from that four-month exposure. (As always, these calculated casualties are purely conjectural—far too few to ever “see” in epidemiological statistics.)

Those numbers indicate that cancer risks in the immediate aftermath of a spew are tiny, even in very heavily contaminated areas. (Provided, always, that kids are kept from drinking iodine-contaminated milk.) Hasty evacuations are therefore needless. There’s time to make a considered decision about whether to relocate—not hours and days, but months and years.

And that choice should be left to residents. It makes no sense to roust retirees from their homes because of radiation levels that will raise their cancer risk by at most a few percent over decades. People can decide for themselves—to flee or not to flee—based on fallout in their vicinity and any other factors they think important. Relocation assistance should be predicated on an understanding that most places, even close to a stricken plant, will remain habitable and fit for most purposes. The vast “costs” of cleanup and compensation that have been attributed to the Fukushima accident are mostly an illusion or the product of overreaction, not the result of any objective harm caused by radioactivity.

Ultimately, the key to rational policy is to understand the kind of risk that nuclear accidents pose. We have a folk-conception of radiation as a kind of slow-acting nerve gas—the merest whiff will definitely kill you, if only after many years. That risk profile justifies panicked flight and endless quarantine after a radioactivity release, but it’s largely a myth. In reality, nuclear meltdowns present a one-in-a-hundred chance of injury. On the spectrum of threat they occupy a fairly innocuous position: somewhere above lightning strikes, in the same ballpark as driving a car or moving to a smoggy city, considerably lower than eating junk food. And that’s only for people residing in the maximally contaminated epicenter of a once-a-generation spew. For everyone else, including almost everyone in Fukushima prefecture itself, the risks are negligible, if they exist at all.

Unfortunately, the Fukushima accident has heightened public misunderstanding of nuclear risks, thanks to long-ingrained cultural associations of fission with nuclear war, the Japanese government’s hysterical evacuation orders and haz-mat mobilizations, and the alarmism of anti-nuke ideologues. The result is anti-nuclear back-lash and the shut-down of Japanese and German nukes, which is by far the most harmful consequence of the spew. These fifty-odd reactors could be brought back on line immediately to displace an equal gigawattage of coal-fired electricity, and would prevent the emission of hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year, as well as thousands of deaths from air pollution. But instead of calling for the restart of these nuclear plants, Greens have stoked huge crowds in Japan and elsewhere into marching against them. If this movement prevails, the environmental and health effects will be worse than those of any pipeline, fracking project or tar-sands development yet proposed.

But there may be a silver lining if the growing scientific consensus on the effects of the Fukushima spew triggers a paradigm shift. Nuclear accidents, far from being the world-imperiling crises of popular lore, are in fact low-stakes, low-impact events with consequences that are usually too small to matter or even detect. There’s been much talk over the past year about the need to digest “the lessons of Fukushima.” Here’s the most important and incontrovertible one: even when it melts down and blows up, nuclear power is safe.

149 comments:

  1. As this article notes, a big issue with nukes is the poor level of public discourse on the topic. Speaking as someone inside the US nuclear power industry, I can tell you that the chatter on TV, radio, and in newspapers is usually very poor regardless of the perspective being offered.

    I can't solve the above problem, but I have written a profile of what real life is like in a US nuclear plant in good times, and what it might be like in bad times, and posted this online free. The novel "Rad Decision" is available at my homepage (or just google the title) with plenty of reader reviews. It turns out the big event in Rad Decision is similar to the one in Fukushima. Lay persons seem to find it both informative and entertaining. The media has shown little interest in this inside story. (They're too busy, I guess.)

    We'll make better decisions about our energy future if we first understand our energy present. Then if we decide squirrels on treadmills is the way to go, at least we'll know what we're getting into.

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    1. I've been pleased to have a brother who's been in the nuke industry for 30 years, starting out as an engine room captain on a nuclear submarine, then working for GE, then Westinghouse, where he developed the silicone-based stuff that effectively quelled the low-level waste controversy, then to his own consultancy. The man's brilliant. No one could accuse him of being a shill for the nuclear power industry, nor of acting on myopic political motives. I've read his studies. I'm grateful not to need the opportunistic showman Ted Gunderson for opinions.

      I had his opinion on the Fukushima disaster before the newsmedia began to spell out a few of the actual facts of the matter. His opinion was quite accurate. At the same time I had the opinion of a government nuke bureaucrat. If I ever meet this extraordinarily arrogant liar in person I'll slap his teeth out. But mabye "it is hard to convince a man of the truth whose job depends on not knowing it."

      There have been a number of pro-nuke essays like the one above, giving only the appearance of level-headedness through smoothly written style and use of the virtually Pavlovian buzzwords "studies" and "scientific."

      "Studies" and "science" show whatever a shortsighted politically interested maven would like, particularly where careers require government grants, for example, at Stanford University. Obama vowed to shut down the coal industry and advance nuclear power. Apparently this author is a "leftist," so may be smoothly spouting the Obama party line. Obama's strangely speedy political career was launched with money from Exelon, America's biggest nuclear power dealer. It was not headline news that Obama slipped nine billion dollars to the industry last summer in the guise of the war budget.

      "Scientific predictions," particularly tied in with news and politics, are worthless -- scientifically speaking. The "science" we look at in most periodicals is a circus of bunking and de-bunking; after watching various issues for enough years, the most scientific conclusion to be made is that few know what they're talking about and those who actually are involved in scientific affairs haven't time for this circus. So it's up to politically or money interested hacks to invent stories like the above.

      Thorium, incidentally, is no improvement. It's more expensive, more complex, and just as radioactive in the long run. It's being sold as "nuke lite." The above writer can't be excused for deliberate myopia in the long term deletorious effects of radioactive particles. Perhaps, as I've seen in many whorish essays like this one, he too is hoping the various ailments it can cause are washed away in the gnat-like flood of stupidities that do comprise this "public debate."

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    2. Tom, you haven't offered any specific criticisms of the post. All you've done is gesture at murky conspiracy theories and rail against the scientific literature as a tissue of corrupt nonsense. (And what do you mean when you say Obama slipped the nuclear industry $9 billion in the war budget?)

      Maybe you could gather your thoughts on the issue, fashion them into specific objections, and cite some evidence that the rest of us can read and evaluate.

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  2. I am happy to see a rational and level-headed discussion of nuclear power in a leftist blog. I just wish more people would get in touch with the science. That being said, I am not very optimistic about nuclear power as a panacea for climate change (unless we switch to Thorium, but that seems to be in an early stage).

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    1. Cornelius, I like thorium-fueled molten salt reactors too--probably everyone's favorite Gen IV technology--but they will take a while to perfect. In the meantime, conventional light-water reactors are ready to deploy en masse right now; that's already happening in Asia.

      I'm pretty optimistic about nuclear power as a climate-change panacea. Nukes have already shown that they can replace fossil fuels on a decisive scale. France almost completely decarbonized its power grid in 20 years from the 1970s to the 1990s by building nuclear reactors--a decarbonization that was far faster, cheaper and more comprehensive than even the most starry-eyed present-day projections for renewables. If there's political support and a firm state committment of the sort that renewables enjoy, there's no reason why a nuclear building program can't do even better now.

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  3. Could you comment on the consequences of a collapse of the Reactor 4 fuel pool?

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    1. Excellent question.

      The Fukushima spent fuel pools have been the focus of intense but unwarranted alarm ever since the tsunami. Last spring a new disaster scenario centered on the SPF at reactor #4 was elaborated by Robert Alvarez, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Energy, and quickly taken up by antinuke campaigners. (See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-alvarez/the-fukushima-nuclear-dis_b_1444146.html and http://akiomatsumura.com/2012/04/682.html.) Here’s the scenario:

      1) A big earthquake causes SPF 4 to collapse or at least suffer a crack that drains it of cooling water.

      2) Without cooling water, the spent fuel assemblies get hot. When they get hot, they may melt, and their zirconium cladding might catalyze the creation of hydrogen gas from water, resulting in a fire.

      3) Once the zirconium and steel cladding has been breached by burning and melting, the fuel assemblies will release huge amounts of radioactive cesium which will drift for thousands of miles.

      4) Because the SPFs are not housed in stout containment structures, the radiation will be so intense that workers may have to abandon the plant—which means that Fukushima Daiichi’s other spent fuel pools, unattended, would also boil away their cooling water, heat up, melt, burn and spew their cesium inventories as well. Alvarez says these pools contain 85 times the amount of cesium released at Chernobyl. Anti-nuke bloggers have even imagined the radioactivity drifting to other nuclear plants and forcing their evacuation, with further giant cesium spews that proceed in a domino effect that extinguishes all life in the Northern Hemisphere.

      Sounds bad—as bad as a Cormac McCarthy novel. But it’s pretty much moonshine. Here’s why:

      1) It’s exceedingly unlikely that SPF 4 will be damaged by an earthquake.

      2) If a collapse or other loss of cooling water were to occur, it’s still very hard for the spent fuel assemblies to melt and catch fire.

      3) If somehow the collapse, melting, fire and spew were to occur, emergency crews could get it under control.

      4) If crews cannot get the situation under control and all the cesium at Fukushima Daiichi really does spew—which won’t happen, but let’s assume it does—then the public health consequences will be modest.

      I’ll address these points in detail (it will take a few posts due to character limits.)

      But first some general comments on the threat posed by spent fuel. Anxiety about the spent fuel housed at nuclear plants has grown so great that it almost overshadows the anxiety about reactor meltdowns. There’s a grain of reality to that dread: spent fuel is dangerously radioactive, and it is usually not stored inside the kind of elaborate containment structures that house reactors. But there’s a reason for that: spent fuel is nowhere near as dangerous as the fresh fuel inside a reactor.

      That’s because the same radioactive processes that make spent fuel dangerous also quickly make it safer. Once the chain reaction stops, short-lived radionuclides, the ones that cause the most intense radiation, quickly decay away and the fuel becomes a lot “cooler” in both the radiological and thermal sense. By now the radioactivity of the fuel in SPF 4 is orders of magnitude smaller than when it came out of the reactor. (In particular, iodine-131, which is probably the worst radionuclide because of its propensity to cause thyroid cancer in kids who drink tainted milk, is now entirely absent.) The heat given off by the fuel is also much reduced. That’s crucial, because heat energy is what powers both the breakdown of containment systems and the volatilization and transport of radionuclides. For all these reasons, years-old spent fuel is a much lesser threat than the fresh, very “hot” fuel in a reactor meltdown.

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    2. Now to the specifics of the spent fuel pool 4 collapse scenario.

      Can SFP 4 collapse? That sure seems plausible considering that its perched precariously on an upper floor in the ruins of reactor building 4 with the roof and walls blown out, open to the elements—a swimming pool on stilts, anti-nukes would say. And conceivably it could collapse; there’s no defense against a car-sized meteorite, after all. But SFP 4 has already survived a legendary Richter 8.9 earthquake, a monster tsunami and a hydrogen explosion. None of that significantly damaged the pool or its contents or even caused a leak. Since then TEPCO says it has shored up SFP 4 with an additional 20% margin of safety. Can we trust TEPCO? No—you can’t trust anyone. But we can observe that so far their structural engineering has proven quite robust. So the possibility that nature will throw something at SFP 4 that it can’t weather seems very remote.

      Can the spent fuel melt and catch fire if they lose cooling water?

      Again, exceedingly unlikely.
      (See http://www-ns.iaea.org/downloads/ni/embarking/argonne_workshop_2010/Braun/L.6.2%20Braun%20Operational%20Safety%20of%20Spent%20Nuclear%20Fuel.pdf)
      To start a hydrogen fire the zirconium-steel cladding has to heat up to 1100 degrees celsius; the melting point is about 1400 degrees. (The fuel cladding has to actually melt before radio-nuclides can escape.) It will be very hard for the fuel to reach those temperatures. Three years after they leave the reactor, the typical spent fuel assembly generates 1 kilowatt of heat, which is what ten 100-watt incandescent light bulbs generate. The freshest fuel in SFP 4 came out of the reactor in November of 2010, so it’s now approaching two years old and a bit hotter, but most of the fuel is older and cooler.

      The industry rule of thumb is that, after 120 days, air cooling is sufficient to keep spent fuel assemblies below the burn or melt temperatures. So by this time even if SFP 4 were to collapse or otherwise lose all its water, the air would keep it far below temperatures that could compromise the cladding and cause a release. (Actually, a very slow leak is the most dangerous possibility, since a partially filled pool might impede air circulation to the uncovered fuel; but a slow leak is something that workers could handle just by spraying in water from a hose.) Indeed, Alvarez tacitly concedes that loss of cooling water is not the crucial issue because his solution to the SFP risk is to put the fuel in dry-cask storage. As the name indicates, dry-cask storage has no water at all—the only cooling provision is air holes. One can imagine collapse scenarios where the fuel assemblies are buried under concrete rubble that somehow insulates and impedes air circulation, leading to dangerous overheating—but then heaps of concrete also impede spews and shield workers from radiation.

      In short, loss of cooling water through collapse or otherwise is not going to get the fuel assemblies to melt and burn; that will require a further chain of far-fetched flukes—if it can physically occur at all, which is very doubtful.

      What will they do if there is a collapse and the fuel does burn and melt and spew?

      That’s essentially what happened at Chernobyl, and what they did there was dump sand and boron and cement onto the blazing reactor until it was buried, using everything from helicopters to wheelbarrows. That was very dangerous work: dozens of men died from acute radiation poisoning. A Fukushima spent fuel fire would be much smaller than the Chernobyl fire, which had lots of graphite to stoke it, and much less radioactive because the short-lived radionuclides, the intensely radioactive ones, have long since decayed away. Fighting it would be a risky business to be sure, but much less so than the Chernobyl operation.

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    3. SFP 4 collapse continued.

      Ok, what if the workers flee and all the spent fuel at Fukushima melts down and burns and nothing stops it?

      According to Alvarez, we get an epic spew of cesium-137, the persistent mid-lived radionuclide that allegedly renders vast areas uninhabitable for millennia. And, he insinuates, that spew would be the equivalent of 85 Chernobyls! Clearly an unprecedented—perhaps unsurvivable—cataclysm, right?

      Well, not exactly. Because Alvarez also says the following:

      “The total spent reactor fuel inventory at the Fukushima-Daichi site contains nearly half of the total amount of Cs-137 estimated by the NCRP to have been released by all atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, Chernobyl, and world-wide reprocessing plants (~270 million curies or ~9.9 E+18 Becquerel).” (http://akiomatsumura.com/2012/04/682.html)

      In other words, that potential 85-Chernobyl spew from all the Fukushima spent fuel pools would comprise something less than half as much radio-cesium as we’ve already spewed since World War II. The planet absorbed all that cesium with no discernible impact on public health or the environment—indeed, populations and life expectancies soared during that period. Now imagine adding 50 percent to that cesium burden from the spent fuel pools; the consequences would be 50 percent of “no discernible impact.”

      To sum up the SFP collapse threat: If it happens, it’s not going to matter much—and it’s not going to happen. That this doomsday scenario has gotten so much press play and agonized hand-wringing shows just how far from reality the debate over nuclear power has drifted.

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    4. Wherever you see SPF above, I meant SFP! (for spent fuel pool, not sun-tan lotion). Apologies.

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  4. I've never focused much of my own attention on nuclear power, and have always tended to be skeptical of the anti-nuke fervor to define nuclear's costs and dangers as somehow uniquely severe.

    That said, I thought I might offer my gut reaction to Boisvert's argument, for what it's worth.

    I'm not here to argue the merits -- I don't like dealing with a bully who thinks his command of esoteric detail authorizes his superior judgment, even when I do know more. I don't know more, in this case, and I'm not interested to get into it. My gut reaction, though, is that the evident abject failure of nuclear engineering and management erases the credibility of the bully.

    Like any voter, forming a superficial political opinion, I look for validators. Like any voter, I am being asked to trust either the politicians or their technocrats, and I have to decide whether to trust, or not. In this case, I trust . . . not.

    Even if the nuclear radiation were not an issue, the economics of Fukushima are catastrophic. These were enormously expensive plants, and this, an enormously expensive accident. Not because of the fears of the anti-nukes, but because of the rank incompetence of the nuclear engineers.

    The buoyant enthusiasm of Boisvert works against his argument, at least with my uninformed, but largely unprejudiced mind.

    Take that for what little it's worth, as feedback on the impression made by the argument.

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    1. Bruce, thanks for your comment.

      First I’ll address some of the philosophical issues you raise.

      I didn’t intend to “bully” readers with a display of “esoteric detail.” I’ve often felt frustrated reading articles about energy policy that make assertions but don’t back them up with evidence, statistics, sources and explications, so I tried to go the other way here. (I hope the result wasn’t too obscure or eye-glazing.)

      But it’s true that I did intend to challenge readers. I really would like people to think hard about their preconceptions of nuclear power and ask whether those attitudes really comport with the scientific evidence. What I’m hoping for is not to overawe people with my (actually rather meager) knowledge but to spur them to undertake their own investigations into these issues—and to get a good debate going on them. So I’m disappointed that you’re “not here to argue the merits” and are “not interested to get into it.”

      You write: “Like any voter, forming a superficial political opinion, I look for validators. Like any voter, I am being asked to trust either the politicians or their technocrats, and I have to decide whether to trust, or not. In this case, I trust…not.”

      This seems like skepticism, but it’s actually quite the opposite. The problem with framing policy issues as questions of “trust” is that what we end up “trusting” is simply our own knee-jerk biases—or, more precisely, the “validator” who echoes them back to us. We reject faith in technocracy at the cost of placing an unlimited faith in our own untutored intuitions which, unfortunately, can lead us as far astray as technocrats sometimes do. I’m afraid you start to do that when you disparage esoteric detail and argument on the merits in favor of your own “uninformed, but largely unprejudice mind” and “gut reaction.” All of this can sound like—forgive me—anti-intellectualism.

      I think we can do better than a blind “trust” which is often just a ratification of our biases, themselves formed by unexamined cultural mythologies. We don’t need to trust—we can know. I hope you and everyone will take the trouble to learn more about nuclear power, and do it with an open mind and a willingness to subject your own most basic preconceptions to the acid test of evidence and reason. That’s one of the hardest tasks anyone can undertake, but it’s basic to leading an examined life. (Also, it's a fascinating topic—you won’t regret taking time to study it.)

      --You actually did make some arguments on the merits of nuclear power which I’ll address in the following comments.

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    2. @ Bruce Wilder,

      You cite “the evident abject failure of nuclear engineering and management” and “the rank incompetence of the nuclear engineers” at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

      Yes, mistakes were made, as the saying goes. TEPCO was told the plant might get hit by a monster tsunami but didn’t believe it and didn’t want to spend money, so they didn’t raise the sea wall. They also should have put some diesel generators, fuel tanks and electrical equipment where they couldn’t get flooded. And they should have installed better vents and vent filters, which could have prevented the explosions or scrubbed most of the radionuclides out of the release. TEPCO also has a history of falsifying safety records and other crimes.

      But on the subject of nuclear engineering competence, it’s worth noting that Fukushima Daiichi’s two neighboring plants, Fukushima Daiini and Onagawa, suffered no serious damage despite bearing as heavy a brunt of earthquake and tsunami. So it seems that most nuclear plants that are assaulted by legendary acts of God emerge unscathed.

      Ok, so nuclear plants almost always work fine, but once per generation one of them melts down and spews. Is that track record one of “abject evident failure” and “rank incompetence,” or near-perfection? That’s a judgment call, and your judgment is as good as mine. What I insist on, though, is that our judgment be consistent with our other assessments of risk and competence.

      For example, a few years ago several hundred people died when an Airbus jet crashed into the Atlantic. What does that tell us about the competence of aeronautical engineers and airline managers? Do we take it as a sign of their abject failure and gross incompetence, or simply as a very rare tragedy in a generally safe and responsible industry? Actually, we see it as a little of both. We accept that air travel is extremely safe but also that engineers, managers and regulators need to guard against safety lapses and improve designs and procedures in the light of experience. We know that there is corner-cutting and criminal negligence in the airline industry, and we try to root it out. What we don’t do is call for the abolition of air travel every time a plane crashes.

      Unfortunately, every nuclear mishap does bring calls for abolition. The reason for the discrepancy is simple: because of the cultural mythology surrounding nuclear fission, people have a “gut instinct” that a nuclear accident can kill millions of people, spawn mutant zombies and destroy the entire world. Because the stakes seem so high, even the tiniest lapse at a nuclear power plant feels like a shocking and unforgiveable dereliction by engineers and managers. And we conclude that nuclear power must be abolished, since such awesome destructive powers cannot be entrusted to flawed human beings.

      So we shrug off disasters in the airline industry while decrying the rank incompetence of the nuclear industry, even though the latter is actually much safer than the former. The scientific consensus is that a few hundred people may eventually die from the once-a-generation Fukushima meltdown, about as many as definitely died in the Airbus crash (to say nothing of the many smaller plane crashes you never hear about.) And yet we feel as if living near a nuclear plant is more dangerous than flying in an airplane.

      That’s why I’ve been trying to quantify what the risks and harms are from the Fukushima spew and other nuclear mishaps. All our attitudes towards nuclear power are shaped by the mythology of apocalyptic risk. Once we see through that—hard to do, since it operates at a subconscious emotional level that’s almost impervious to reason—we can make a realistic assessment of the performance of the nuclear industry. What that assessment would show, in my opinion, is not a cesspool of rank incompetence but an extraordinarily safe industry that we should quickly expand to displace much more dangerous fossil-fueled electricity.

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    3. @ Bruce Wilder,

      You write: “Even if the nuclear radiation were not an issue, the economics of Fukushima are catastrophic. These were enormously expensive plants, and this, an enormously expensive accident.”

      Right, economics are the key. Radiation is a minuscule risk and nuclear power is as safe as or safer than any other generation technology. The debate should focus on cost, rate of deployment, reliability, logistics and land use.

      I’m planning a post on the economics of nukes, if Josh permits. In the meantime, I’m trying to get a fix on the costs of the Fukushima spew; maybe economists here can help me.

      The plants are not all that expensive. The last three nuclear reactors built in Japan, 2004-6, came in at between $2000 and $3000 per kilowatt, in 2004-6 dollars. (http://web.mit.edu/mitei/docs/spotlights/nuclear-fuel-cycle-du.pdf) Table 3b. Right now onshore wind power costs about $2000 per kilowatt and utility-scale solar PV costs about $1500 per kilowatt. But a kilowatt of nuclear puts out from 3 to 5 times as much energy in kilowatt-hours as wind, and 4 to 10 times as much as solar PV.

      The costs of cleanup and decommissioning the stricken reactors are huge; I’m guessing perhaps $10-20 billion. On the other hand, Fukushima Daiichi is not necessarily a write-off. Units 5-6 were not seriously damaged; if restarted they could generate billions in profits to defray cleanup costs. The Chernobyl plant kept generating electricity for 14 years after the 1986 accident, and Three Mile Island is still operating.

      Off-site costs are even harder to nail down. I’ve seen estimates for total costs—never itemized—ranging up to $650 billion (from Greenpeace). I think that’s a wild overestimate, but its interesting to calculate how much of a cost burden that would put on the global reactor fleet. Let’s say we have one Fukushima-scale accident every 25 years, costing $650 billion. World nuclear capacity is about 370 gigawatts (pre-Fukushima) operating at perhaps an 85% capacity factor, so over 25 years nuclear generates about 68 trillion kilowatt-hours. Dividing $650 billion by 68 trillion, the cost per kilowatt-hour works out to $0.0096.

      So if every nuclear reactor paid one penny per kilowatt-hour into a global disaster fund, that would be more than enough to pay the exaggerated Greenpeace cost of a Fukushima meltdown every few decades. Critics who insist that nuclear power would be impossibly expensive if it had to insure itself should think about that.

      What might a realistic assessment of the Fukushima costs be? Hard to say, since the spew has caused no fatalities or injuries, or damage to anything off the plant site. All the “costs” stem from political decisions that place certain areas and activities out of bounds because of safety anxieties that have no clear objective basis.

      Here’s a stab. The Japanese government is planning to spend $14 billion over 30 years on cleanup, although it’s not clear those expenses are really useful. If 1000 people were to die of cancer, alotting say, $1 million for treatment and $2 million for damages, and $1 million for treating and compensating another 1000 non-fatal cancers, you might spend $4 billion for health-related costs. There are 150,000 refugees, say 50,000 families; giving each family $1 million in compensation would be $50 billion. I saw an article claiming that the town of Futaba in the EZ, pop. 7000, claimed $234 million for the cost of lost municipal land and buildings; extrapolating to 150,000 refugees would be $5 billion in lost municipal land.

      I’m having a hard time getting the costs of the accident even up to $100 billion, and even these estimates are grossly inflated because in fact most of the land around Fukushima Daiichi is now or soon will be fit for habitation, farming, etc. Anyway, maybe economists can help me out. What am I missing? How should we calculate the costs of the Fukushima meltdown?

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  5. Replies
    1. @ Raymond Lutz,

      There’s been a lot of speculation about “recriticality,” i. e., that chain reactions might re-ignite in the damaged Fukushima reactor cores. Claims that this has happened have been proven false, and in my view it’s essentially impossible. Here’s why (esoteric detail alert!):

      People have the impression that fission chain reactions are always champing at the bit to start up and can only be restrained with great difficulty. That’s not really true. It’s extremely difficult to get a CR started or to sustain it; the art of nuclear engineering is the precise assemblage of reactor parts and operating conditions to coax to life a CR that would prefer to fizzle out.

      For example, in light-water reactors like the Fukushima ones, the fuel has to be covered with water, which is the moderator. Neutrons slow down when they bounce off hydrogen atoms in water, and that makes them easier for U-235 nuclei to absorb during the chain reaction. If cooling water boils away, the chain reaction instantly stops.

      The chain reaction also requires that the fuel be in a “critical geometry” that has a sufficiently low ratio of surface area to volume. Without a critical geometry, too many neutrons leak out through the surface of the fuel elements before fissioning another nucleus, and the chain reaction cannot sustain itself. The critical geometry also has to have water channels running through it, so the neutrons have a chance to be moderated. But if the fuel melts, it loses its critical geometry.

      Finally, all the Fukushima reactors were shut down before the tsunami by having boron control rods inserted into them. Boron is a neutron poison; it absorbs the neutrons before they can fission a nucleus. You can’t have a chain reaction with boron in the fuel.

      So when the water boiled away in the reactors, recriticality was impossible because there was no moderator and because the boron control rods were there. After the meltdown what you had was a shapeless drip of corium without a critical geometry but with lots of boron mixed in. Nowadays the fuel is covered with water again, so the moderator is there, but it’s water laced with boron—boron everywhere and no critical geometry. There’s just no way in hell you’re going to get a chain reaction out of that. If by some miracle it started up again, it would fizzle out as soon as it boiled away the moderating water. But that could never happen. Those reactors are dead.

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    2. "Claims that this has happened have been proven false"... your source? And the anomalous isotopic ratios?

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    3. @ Raymond Lutz,

      For example, a major recriticality furor started after TEPCO detected Xenon-135 in the Unit 2 reactor on Nov. 1, 2011. Xenon-135 has a half-life of about 9 hours, so people argued that it couldn’t be left over from the chain reaction that shut down on March 11, 2011; therefore a new chain reaction—recriticality—must have been producing the Xenon-135.

      But then on Nov. 4, 2011, TEPCO issued an analysis saying that the traces of Xenon-135 resulted from “spontaneous fission”—heavy radionuclides spontaneously breaking apart in the absence of a chain reaction, a well-known process. Their argument was that the Xe-135 traces were smaller by orders of magnitude than the known production rates in chain reactions, and that they persisted after the core was smothered with borate. (http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/press/corp-com/release/betu11_e/images/111104e19.pdf)

      There have been many claims of recriticality, most of them relying on anomalous isotopic ratios—i.e., too much of a short-lived isotope that should have already decayed away. It would help me to respond to them if you could cite specific claims along with sources.

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  6. As Bruce Wilder said, you can't trust politicians, businesses, or bureaucracy. Businessmen cheat, cut corners, exploit loopholes. Technocrats cling to their assumption, and tend to operate in secrecy. Politicians lie.

    I think it's like this: in the end it can, by trial and error, evolve into something more or less safe and sound, like, say, civil aviation. But there will be plenty of accidents and casualties along the way, and some might be catastrophic. And once it evolves into something more or less safe and sound, there will be attempts to cut costs, deregulate, and so on, and that will cause more accidents and casualties. The usual.

    Why not concentrate on less dangerous methods (like solar) instead?

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    1. @ Datatutashkhia,

      “Why not concentrate on less dangerous methods (like solar) instead?”

      People think solar is less dangerous than nuclear only because a) they overestimate the dangers of nuclear; and b) they haven’t carefully considered the potential dangers of solar power.

      A small one is that rooftop solar panels require periodic cleaning. Inevitably, this will be done haphazardly by home-owners and their teenaged sons or ill-trained handymen clambering about, often in snowy conditions. Let’s say there are 100 million such rooftop solar installations in the Northern Hemisphere and that there’s a one in ten million chance per year that someone falls off a roof and breaks his neck cleaning them. That’s ten deaths per year—not many, but more than the likely yearly cancer death toll from the Fukushima accident.

      Worried about nuclear waste? Well, then how do you feel about the toxic metals and rare earths in solar panels? Unlike nuclear waste, solar waste isn’t sequestered in concrete-and-steel casks or deep geological repositories; it just gets dumped in landfills where it leaches into the environment. And whatever burden of sickness and death those toxins impart is there for eternity—they won’t decay away like radionuclides do.

      But by far the most dangerous aspect of solar power is simply its unreliability. Intermittent and unpredictable solar and wind power makes the electric grid much more prone to interruptions and blackouts. That sounds like just an inconvenience, but in fact a temporary disruption of electricity could be much more deadly than any nuclear spew.

      In 1995 when I lived in Chicago, we had a heat wave that killed about 750 people. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1995_Chicago_heat_wave) They were mostly poor people who didn’t have air conditioners. There was no blackout; if there had been the death toll could have been many times higher. A 2003 heat wave in Europe, which has little air conditioning, is estimated to have killed 70,000 people (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2003_European_heat_wave). Again, no blackouts, but if there had been the death toll would have been worse.

      So try on this disaster scenario for an all-renewables America. It’s summertime and there’s cloud-cover over the desert Southwest where most of the solar capacity is, but extremely hot and sultry weather—hence little wind—in the rest of the country. Blackouts set in as temperatures soar. Deprived of air conditioning and fans, old and sick people start dying in droves like they did in Europe in 2003. That’s a death toll way beyond even Chernobyl’s.

      Unlikely? You bet—maybe as unlikely as a Richter 9 earthquake followed by a monster tsunami.

      Of course, grid managers will try to forestall that scenario with redundant capacity and storage schemes and grid smartness and careful planning. But remember, the electric grid, the utilities and the wind and solar farms are also run by evil, dishonest, deluded men steeped in greed and hubris and dicey assumptions. And just a small miscalculation on their part spells disaster. Even if the unreliability of renewables contributes just 5 percent to a Europe-2003 scale crisis, it would still be responsible for 3500 deaths—many times more than Fukushima will kill.

      Of course, the real way managers will—and do--prepare for a renewables slump is simply to retain the whole infrastructure of fossil-fueled electricity as “back-up.” Every renewables scenario tacitly requires that a lot of coal and natural gas be burned, with the attendant lethal burden of air pollution and global warming.

      So, no, Datatutashkhia, I won’t concede that solar power is self-evidently less dangerous than nuclear. We need to think hard and systematically about that assumption, as we do all our unexamined notions about nuclear power and renewables. And on other key points of comparison—costs, scaleability, reliability, deployment rates, land footprint, environmental impacts—I think nuclear fares better than solar and wind.

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    2. Thanks for your comment, Datatutashkhia. First some points about nuclear safety, then I’ll talk about solar power.

      You’re right, the nuclear industry is run by evil, dishonest, deluded men. That’s true of every human enterprise, yet we don’t feel a need to shut down the liquor industry, McDonalds or the Catholic Church. We only want to ban nuclear power because we believe that radiation is a unique existential threat that can kill millions of people.

      But that belief is false. Nuclear power is not an existential threat. Radiation is much less dangerous than people think. The amounts released even in a major spew cannot kill on an out-sized scale. The scientific evidence proves that beyond a doubt.

      So we don’t have to wait for nuclear power to “evolve into something more or less safe and sound like, say, civil aviation.” Nuclear power is already dramatically safer than civil aviation. Since 1999, for example, 17,928 people have died in plane crashes. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aviation_accidents_and_incidents#Statistics). That’s more than ten times the high-end estimates of Fukushima casualties, the only significant nuclear accident in 25 years.

      And yes, the nuclear industry and its regulatory apparatus vacillate between rigorous safety and corrupt negligence. But so does every other industry, like aviation. That’s a damning criticism only if you believe nuclear risks are uniquely “catastrophic.”

      People do believe that because they associate nuclear power with nuclear weapons and Godzilla movies. But is there realistically a “Big One” on the horizon, a nuclear accident that will cause truly catastrophic death and destruction?

      I say no. We already had the Big One at Chernobyl—that really is the worst it can get. Chernobyl was a giant explosion that blew the reactor wide open to the elements and started a huge fire with plenty of graphite to fuel it. That fire raged for over a week, lofting tons of radioactive gas and soot into the sky to spread far and wide. Remember, a nuclear disaster is simply any process that distributes the contents of a reactor outside the plant. Short of Fed-Exing the nuclear core, there is no process that can distribute it as efficiently and widely as a big, hot, persistent bonfire in a reactor open to the sky. So we’ve been there and done that.

      Yet even the Chernobyl disaster had suprisingly limited consequences. Scientists conjecture that the Chernobyl radioactivity release may eventually kill some 27,000 people worldwide from cancer over many decades. (Again, that’s based on a “no safe dose” theory that isn’t proven for low radiation doses.) But the health effects that can actually be measured in empirical studies are much smaller, according to the authoritative UN study. (www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2008/11-80076_Report_2008_Annex_D.pdf.) We know that dozens of emergency workers died from acute radiation poisoning; and that 6,000 thyroid cancer cases resulted from children drinking milk from cows that grazed on radio-iodine-tainted grass. (Fortunately, thyroid cancer is curable, so only 15 deaths ensued.) There may also be a slightly increased leukemia rates among emergency workers who got high radiation doses, an effect that wavers on the edge of statistical significance. Taken together, we’re talking perhaps a few hundred fatalities. Otherwise, there’s no conclusive evidence of any health consequences for civilians. The report concludes that “the vast majority of the population need not live in fear of serious health consequences from the Chernobyl accident.”

      You have to admit, Datatutashkhia, that there’s a double standard at play. We panic at nuclear risks that are, by every objective measure, orders of magnitude smaller than other risks that we blithely accept. That double standard is based on a mythology of apocalyptic risk that just doesn’t hold water. We need to base nuclear policy in reality, not myth.

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  7. I can't add much to WB's responses here. For the record, he's convinced me.

    I do just want to spell out something that might get lost in the details here. The advantage of this approach is that it's about looking at outcomes. It doesn't depend on the specific mechanisms that might produce a disaster, it asks, given a disaster, what are the health impacts? If the answers here on the impact of Fukushima are right -- and I haven't seen any evidence that they're not -- then from a public-health standpoint it's actually not that important to know the probability of a disaster, since even if we've gotten lucky so far and the true expected rate of disaster is, say, ten times higher than the rate we've observed historically, the impact would still be small.

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    1. Well said.

      I would only add that the nuclear accident rate per reactor-years of operation has also been falling, and should continue to do so. Nuclear plants follow the same kind of learning curve that makes airplanes, cars and other accident-prone technologies safer over time. Nuclear engineers and managers will make mistakes in the future, but they probably won't be the same mistakes as were made at Chernobyl and Fukushima. As the universe of mistakes shrinks, so does the accident rate.

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  8. Hi Will,
    you say: "You have to admit, Datatutashkhia, that there’s a double standard at play. We panic at nuclear risks that are, by every objective measure, orders of magnitude smaller than other risks that we blithely accept. That double standard is based on a mythology of apocalyptic risk that just doesn’t hold water. We need to base nuclear policy in reality, not myth."

    No, I don't think so. There is a reason people are terrified by invisible (and, in everyday practice, undetectable) killing rays, while not being bothered by statistical possibilities of falling off a roof, or getting in a car accident, or getting a heat stroke.

    They are not thinking in terms of objective measures, not in terms of statistics; they are terrified of dangers that are completely out of their control. That's a big difference between the technocratic approach and the layman approach to risks. My falling off the roof would be my own fault, that I could've prevented. My only way to prevent being poisoned by radiation is resisting the propagation of nuclear power. So, there you go.

    Yes, I admit, this may seem irrational from the technocratic point of view, with statistics and all, but ordinary people operate in a different paradigm, use a different logic.

    Does it make sense, what I'm saying?

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    1. There’s something to what you say, Datatutashkhia, but I don’t think it gets at the heart of nuclear phobias.

      Yes, people are terrified of dangers they think are totally out of their control—but only if the danger also seems both dire and probable.

      Again, consider air travel. Airplane passengers have absolutely no control over their fates. An electrical short, a lightning strike, a terrorist bomb, a goose in the engine—there’s nothing the passengers can do but sit there and wait for certain death. Yet people blithely put themselves in that position of utter helplessness and vulnerability to horrific catastrophe. That’s because they know the odds of a crash are extremely remote—and also because prevailing cultural representations of air travel don’t dwell on its dangers, but on its convenience and excitement (or simply its banality).

      So it’s not just lack of control. Perceptions of risk also depend on how probable and severe the danger seems, which in turn depends crucially on signals from the larger culture.

      The cultural signals about nuclear radiation emphasize the direness and inevitability of disaster. We’re raised from childhood associating fission with nuclear war, the one thing that can destroy mankind, and taught that the death toll would be greatly boosted by persistent radiation from global fallout (which is probably not true). We’re told that “no dose of radiation is safe”—meaning “any dose is fatal.” And Hollywood never tires of reminding us that radiation will not only kill us but turn us into mutant cannibal zombies as well.

      The schizophrenia that people show towards different types of radiation demonstrates that attitudes are culturally determined. It’s not true that people have an automatic dread of undetectable killing rays. That’s what UV rays in sunlight are—a sunburn is a radiation burn that can give you a lethal skin cancer (as can tanning parlors.) We are awash in gamma rays from outer space. Medical X-rays give us a substantial dose of radiation, which no one ever worries about. Our houses are full of radioactive radon gas. Every bite of food we eat is naturally radioactive. We ourselves are naturally radioactive—when you embrace a spouse, you’re getting and giving a burst of gamma rays.

      People never think about any of this, but if you bring it up they will just shrug. Natural sources of radiation greatly outweigh what people in Fukushima will get from reactor fallout, but it’s the reactors that scare us. That’s because there’s no apocalyptic mythology surrounding those everyday radiation exposures like there is around radiation from nuclear fission.

      Even our attitudes towards different brands of nuclear power are culturally dictated. Naval vessels powered by nuclear reactors visit teeming port cities all the time, and no one bats an eyelash. That’s because the military is brave and competent and honest—they have everything under control. Civilian nuclear plants, by contrast, are run by the evil Mr. Burns and the beer-swilling buffoon Homer Simpson.

      I don’t think these deeply contradictory attitudes can be explained by any consistent reaction to perceived objective properties of radiation, whether real or imaginary. We have to conclude that people are getting there anxieties from the cultural context, not the radiation. In contexts free of mythology, people are completely indifferent to large radiation exposures. But when the context is a mythology of doom, they panic over trivial exposures.

      Indeed, before World War II public attitudes towards radiation were strongly positive, even frolicsome. You may recall seeing old movies of people capering in front of fluoroscopes—dancing skeletons. People got a laugh from that—and huge radiation doses. Doctors prescribed irradiation of the head as a general tonic. Had nuclear power plants been built before Hiroshima and Nagasaki linked fission to global apocalypse, it would never have occurred to people that they were a threat to public safety.

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  9. "Naval vessels powered by nuclear reactors visit teeming port cities all the time, and no one bats an eyelash. That’s because the military is brave and competent and honest"

    No that's because the military doesn't have a profit motive. There is no motivation to conceal leaks, to use a pentel to airbrush weld Xrays, to operate plants long past their planned lifetime, when embrittlement become a major and unsolved metallurgical issue. And the military accident rate, while high, is nothing like the civilian one. Where rank incompetence (cue Homer) has played a role in most accidents.

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    1. @ Marku,

      Yes, neutron embrittlement is a problem in nuclear maintenance. (When neutrons hit the steel in reactor vessels, they can knock atoms out of the crystal lattice and cause other damage that makes the steel more vulnerable to cracking.) The industry and regulators devote a lot of effort to studying and monitoring that. It’s a major but not a crippling problem; to date their have been no serious accidents caused by NE. Nor is it exactly “unresolved;”—the damage can be reversed by heat annealing. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loviisa_Nuclear_Power_Plant). Neutron embrittlement is no more an Achilles heel of nuclear plants than are other maintenance issues, like rust.

      It’s not meaningful to speak of nuclear plants operating beyond their “planned lifetime.” We have 40 years of hands-on experience now with these plants, so we have a much better idea of how long they can safely operate than their designers did back in the 1960s and 1970s when the typical 40-year lifetimes were originally guesstimated. Also, most parts of a plant are periodically replaced and updated. Forecasts of breakdowns at aging plants have not come true. Have you seen any hard evidence that aging plants are more prone to accidents?

      I don’t think the absence of a profit motive makes the military unimpeachably responsible and immune from impulses to conceal problems or use aging equipment. (When the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise retires next year her reactors will be 53 years old. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Enterprise_(CVN-65)). I don’t know what the accident rate is in the naval nuclear program—any refs on that?—but I do know there have been plenty of crazy abuses in the military, from the mess at the Hanford site to injecting hospital patients with plutonium to dropping atom bombs on Japanese cities. The notion of a flawlessly competent and incorruptible military is myth, not reality. And the most disastrous civilian nuclear program by far belonged to the Soviet Union—no profit motive there.

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  10. Will, if I understand you correctly, nuclear power is actually too safe for the money. How can it be made cheaper and more deadly?

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    1. @ Chris Mealy,

      Excellent question, Chris. But before I answer, try looking at that seemingly heartless cost-benefit analysis the other way round.

      The Fukushima Daiichi plant put out 4.7 gigawatts for over 30 years. What if it had never been built and that power had been produced by a coal-fired plant instead? Well, U.S. coal-fired plants, relatively clean, still kill about 40 people per gigawatt per year from air pollution. So the Fukushima nukes may well have displaced enough coal-burning over their lifetime to save 5640 lives, four times more than the meltdowns might end up killing at high-end estimates. So were the Fukushima reactors worth it, or should they never have been built because they weren’t safe enough?

      Should we really insist on extremely expensive, gold-plated nuclear safety, if the resulting costs slow or halt deployment of reactors? Coal-fired plants kill about 200,000 people a year from air pollution worldwide. Suppose we replace all of them with thousands of crappy, obsolete, el-cheapo, Fukushima-style Generation II reactors, and as a result we have a Fukushima-scale meltdown every single year. Then we’d be killing at most a thousand people or so a year with nuclear power, but we’d be saving 200,000 lives a year by abating coal. How many millions of lives should we sacrifice to coal to prevent thousands being lost to nuclear?

      On balance every nuclear plant, even Fukushima Daiichi, saves lives—many lives. So Chris, you’ve got the trade-off exactly backwards: what’s deadly isn’t cheap nuclear power, but nuclear power that’s too expensive to build.

      But safety vs. cost isn’t a relevant trade-off anyway. Gen II designs are plenty safe for my money—Fukushima proves that—but the world is moving on to even safer Gen III reactors. These gold-plated designs are expensive, but costs and build-times can be brought way down simply through mass deployment and economies of scale. This has already happened in China and Korea.

      In the West the Gen III reactors remain hideously expensive—although still cheaper than renewables—in large part because of political opposition fed by anti-nuclear phobias. Nuclear builds are either banned outright or strangled by red tape and nuisance lawsuits. Where they are permitted, building programs are tiny and piecemeal; governments refuse to commit to mass deployments that would allow an experienced construction industry and supply chain to sprout and develop economies of scale. It’s these legal, political and organizational barriers that need to be lowered, not safety standards, to make nuclear cheap.

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  11. Hi Will, thanks for the reply. I agree with your point about negative associations, but hey, let's be fair: Hiroshima and Chernobyl are not horror tales from Godzilla movies.

    Also, I agree that aviation is a similar phenomenon. And, incidentally, fear of flying is also quite common. The Wikipedia article on it tells me that "commercial air travel continues to cause a significant proportion of the public to feel anxiety." It alleges the same causes (more or less) that you do: "the media coverage is forcing confirmation bias", "misunderstandings of the principles of aviation".

    There is a difference, though: no one (under normal circumstances) can force you to get on a plane. But they can build a nuclear power station outside your town. In other words, there is no reason, for the opponents, to fight the mainstreaming of civil aviation, but there is in respect to nuclear power. Italy is a good case; you can see how it's been developing there.

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    1. @ Datatutashkhia,

      Yes, some people are terrified of flying—like me!—but that fear is treated as a psychological disorder; it doesn’t fuel a movement for abolition, the way nuclear anxieties do. Aviation disaster stories are overwhelmingly counterbalanced by positive and glamorous representations of air travel. Even scary Hollywood aviation thrillers are usually about how people, including passengers, regain control of the plane and land safely, or parachute safely, or jump out of the plane without a parachute and survive anyway.

      It’s all cultural context, not any particular property of aviation or radiation.

      Because it’s not true that you’re safe from aviation disaster if you just refuse to get on a plane. Most of the victims of the September 11 attacks were on the ground. They didn’t get on planes, they were just sitting ducks when planes hit them. We’re still completely vulnerable to that: there’s virtually nothing to stop terrorists from renting a private cargo jet and crashing it into a skyscraper. (Or dropping bombs and WMDs out of it.)

      Aviation risk is worse in every particular, whether real or psychological, than the risk of nuclear power. Aviation kills more people, more frequently, in a more horrific fashion. We cannot control our exposure to it as individuals and we have absolutely no way to avoid it, even if we never set foot on an airplane. There’s only one solution to the problem of deadly aviation, Datatutashkhia—we have to abolish it.

      Arguments like that prevail in the nuclear debate because with nuclear there’s a cultural context that affirms and stokes anxieties into a politically potent ideology. There’s a decades-old mythology of radio-phobia, and lots of anti-nuclear leaders, academics, journalists, filmmakers and politicians who play on it to whip fears into a fever pitch and focus them on abolition. That’s what’s happening in Italy, Japan and elsewhere.

      Nuclear phobias are not a product of individual risk perception. They stem instead from a collective cultural mythology, inflated into a political ideology by tragically misguided Greens.

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  12. Will,

    This is a great post. I don't buy the deaths due to coal that you are citing. Yes, there are a large number of people with compromised health that can die as a result of exposure to irritants, but that does not mean that if we have no coal, the number of these deaths would decrease. They would die of some other irritant that would be harder to blame on a particular industry.

    What you really mean is that their lives would be extended somewhat because there would be fewer irritants out there, but for how long and how confident are we of this calculus? Don't even get started on deaths due to future global warming. I think that is just scaremongering.

    I am not a fan of counting bodies this way, and would rather have high safety standards generally for all industries and leave it at that.

    To me it boils down to the economics, and right now they don't pencil out due to the lack of economies of scale as you point out. I only care about the economics, and would move away from fossil fuels only because we are running out of them, in the sense that there is a lot of unnecessary price volatility that causes a lot of damage.

    This means we need to go big with nuclear or not at all, because right now, nuclear is an expensive proposition. I respect the right of the public not to go big with nuclear, even though I believe this is an irrational choice. They prefer coal or gas because it is cheaper and known. Because they feel strongly about nuclear, it's not something that you can let technocrats decide.

    Practically speaking, the only way to move forward is to do what you are doing on this blog, but at the national level. Have a big debate -- I am sure the coal industry will be more than capable of presenting the anti-nuclear side, so it wont be a one sided debate. But I do trust the facts to win out, long term. And that may be that we stick with fossil fuels until the price volatility is much worse than it has been recently, and I think that this is also a reasonable view to have.


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    1. @ rsj,

      Thanks for your comment.

      On deaths due to coal, you might want to check out the studies listed in the ref I cited (www.catf.us/resources/publications/files/The_Toll_from_Coal.pdf) and see what you make of them.

      You’re right that air pollution, like most causes of chronic disease, is a contributing factor rather than an immediate killer; it manifests as “years of life lost” rather than lives stopped cold in their tracks. (Although not always; during London’s “Great Smog” of 1952, coal pollution killed 4,000 people in a single long weekend, including many children. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Smog) ) Still, coal pollution is similar to other recognized killers like tobacco. A coal smoke-stack is essentially a big cigarette, and like cigarettes it contributes to lung cancer—the carcinogens it spews can cause one or more mutations in the chain of mutations needed to turn a normal cell cancerous—as well as cardio-pulmonary ailments.

      Coal pollution is relatively mild in the U. S. but in other countries like China it is severe. Travelers arriving in Beijing quickly develop the acute respiratory symptoms of heavy smokers, like a persistent cough. There can be little doubt that coal pollution in China causes a very heavy burden of disease and mortality. That’s one reason the Chinese are going big for nuclear.

      Coal- and wood-burning for home cooking and heating in poorly ventilated houses in the Third World is an even worse health problem than coal-fired power plants. Living in a haze of fumes from a coal or wood stove is also equivalent to being a heavy smoker. Electric ranges and heaters powered by nuclear reactors can eliminate that scourge.

      So I think it’s pretty clear that a world powered by clean nuclear electricity will be a lot healthier. People who fixate on the tiny risks of nuclear instead of the enormous health benefits it confers really get things backwards.

      There are lot of good reasons to get off fossil fuels: health concerns; global warming (a big one for me); also it makes no sense to burn up our treasure-chest of hydrocarbons, the feed-stocks of the chemical, plastics, pharmaceutical and fertilizer industries.

      --You’re right that the economics of nuclear are a crucial consideration, but we have to take a long view of the economics. Mass deployment will bring costs way down, but even piece-meal nuclear builds aren’t outrageously pricey over the six or more decades of operation. Nuclear is expensive for the 25 years that you’re paying off the mortgage on the plant, but its low operating costs mean that for many decades afterwards it’s only half as expensive as coal and gas-fired electricity. Averaged over the long term it’s probably the cheapest power there is. Wall Street doesn’t care—what it likes is dirt-cheap gas plants that turn an immediate profit. Economically, nuclear is the smart long play—but only foresighted public policy can see that.

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  13. I disagree that fear of flying is a psychological disorder. A full-blown phobia would be, but a mere anxiety (of various degrees), that most people have, is a perfectly normal human condition. Human beings are not robots, they don't just check the statistics, come to a logical conclusion, and act on it.

    Nuclear power is similar, IMO. Statistics or no statistics, I wouldn't feel comfortable living next to a nuclear power station. For chrissake, in Woburn, MA, where I lived once, not too long ago just a garden variety chemical business killed a bunch of people. And that was a well-established business and it was supposed to be safe too.

    But, unlike Italy, in a large country like the US, I imagine there could be a compromise: if you could convince most people that a Chernobyl-style disaster is outright impossible (which would be a challenge), and you agreed to build them somewhere in unpopulated areas in the flyover country, then, I think, it would work, for a large majority, the non-ideological part of the opposition.

    But is it really worth it? Nobody is afraid of solar power.

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    1. @ Datatutashkhia,

      “Human beings are not robots, they don’t just check the statistics, come to a logical concusion, and act on it….Statistics or no statistics, I wouldn’t feel comfortable living next to a nuclear power station.”

      We do tend to feel that logic and statistics—science—are a kind of alien, inhuman imposition on our emotions and intuitions, and therefore a repression of our most intimate consciousness.

      But I’ve come to a different view—that statistics are a liberation. They liberate us from our ignorance and confusion and helplessness, and from dogmas that deprived so many people of happiness and freedom. Statistics dispel the darkness of prejudice and fear and let us dwell in the light of reason. They make us more human—and humane.

      But statistics also demand something of us, Datatutashkhia. They demand an honesty, and a humility, that can sometimes seem too much to bear. They can deprive us of the verities on which we founded our conception of the world and ourselves, and leave us feeling unmoored. They can show us—harshly, pitilessly—that we are wrong, and thus kick away the crutches our egotism and pride lean upon. Statistics demand selflessness: an acknowledgement—yes, a faith—that there is a standard of truth outside ourselves, superior to our own impulses and gut instincts, to which we must bow.

      So to spurn statistics is in a way to embrace selfishness, especially when it comes to energy policy. There’s an obvious selfishness in the right’s refusal to tolerate even the smallest infringement of its fossil-fueled luxuries for the good of the planet. There’s an equal—perhaps greater—selfishness in the left’s refusal to countenance the tiniest “risk” in the same cause (even when the risk is imaginary and vastly outweighed by the benefits.) Both these brands of selfishness block us from taking necessary measures to address the crises we face.

      But we can reject that selfishness, Datatutashkhia, and statistics help us do that. A lot of leftists like me support nuclear power precisely because the statistics showed us it was not just the safe thing but the responsible thing to do. We believe that nuclear power is the best and fastest way to implement our ethic of care and reverence for the planet and concern for the health and well-being of people.

      I hope every progressive and environmentalist reading this—starting with you, Datatutashkhia—will join the pro-nuclear left in studying the statistics. That’s the only chance we have.

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  14. Will, I understand what you're saying. If indeed nuclear power is the solution to the energy problems, then sure, you got a point. My being uncomfortable is, of course, nothing compared to the pollution, catastrophic climate change, etc.

    Sure. But, I'll ask again: is it really worth it? I'm not an expert, but I remember reading somewhere that the discovered reserves of uranium are not that great, and if you managed to switch completely, 100% to nuclear power today, you would've run out of it in just a few years. What's the point of fighting the intuition of masses of people (however formed), if what you're fighting for is not really a solution?

    Or, if we want to be scientific, what's the cost/benefit analysis here? Considering the advances of renewables, that don't need to fight anyone's intuition?

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    1. @ Datatutashkhia,

      We’re not running out of uranium, nor are we likely to.

      One problem is that people misunderstand the category of “recoverable reserves,” the uranium resource figure that’s commonly quoted. Recoverable reserves means uranium deposits that can be profitably mined at current uranium prices. If uranium prices fall, recoverable reserves shrink just by an accounting standard. If uranium prices rise, recoverable reserves also rise because deposits that were too costly before become profitable to mine.

      Recoverable reserves at today’s uranium prices, $130/kg or less, stand at about 5.3 million tons. The current 440-unit reactor fleet burns about 70,000 tons per year, so we have recoverable reserves to last 75 years at current consumption. At a price of $260/kg, recoverable reserves rise to 7 million tons, 100 years worth at current consumption. (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf75.html) Since uranium costs are only a small fraction of a reactor’s operating costs, that doubling of prices would have only a small effect on the cost of nuclear electricity.

      If we built the 10,000 or so reactors we need to power the whole world, then yes, that 7 million tons of uranium would last only 5 years. Current spent fuel recycling processes could eke out another 50 percent, so maybe 8 years. Sounds like if we tried to run the world with nuclear we’d run out of fuel right away—so why bother?

      Well, there are other sources. For example, there’s lots of uranium in the phosphate rocks that we process into fertilizer. We used to extract the uranium from phosphate, but uranium prices fell so low that it became unprofitable and we stopped. Phosphate mines have about 9-22 million tons of uranium, (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/phosphates_inf124.html) so if we mined it all we could power the world for 18 to 33 years, a little better.

      But how much more uranium is out there? We don’t know. Uranium is so cheap that there’s not a lot of prospecting compared to what’s done for oil and gas. No one has really been looking for hard-to-access deep deposits or sea-floor deposits. Chances are there are vast unknown deposits in places we’ve never explored. People have been saying we were about to run out of oil for a hundred years, and we still have plenty.

      One uranium resource we do know of is truly oceanic in size—the ocean. Dissolved in seawater is 4.5 billion tons of uranium. We have technology that can extract it—the latest experiments estimate the cost at $660/kg and falling. (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22201-record-haul-of-uranium-harvested-from-seawater.htm) If we can harvest 10 percent of it, that’s enough to power the world for 500 years.

      The real game-changers are breeder reactors, which turn non-fissile U-238, which is 99% of mined uranium, into fissile Plutonium-239, a good reactor fuel. There are utility-scale prototypes ready to go; General Electric has offered to build its PRISM fast-breeder reactor in the UK with a money-back guarantee. Other breeder reactors turn radioactive thorium into fissile uranium-233; we have 3 times more thorium in the world than uranium. Breeder technology will increase our nuclear fuel supplies by a factor of 100—enough to power the world for tens of thousands of years. But after that, yes--we’ll have to go back to burning coal.

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    2. “What’s the cost-benefit analysis here? Considering the advances of renewables, that don’t need to fight anyone’s intuition.”

      Datatutshkhia, just like people’s intuitions about nuclear are wrong, their intuitions about wind and solar are also wrong.

      A thorough critique of renewables will have to wait for another post, but here’s the tweet.

      Lots of gigawatts of wind and solar are being built, but because the capacity factors are so feeble—20-35 percent for onshore wind, 10-20 percent for solar—they don’t produce much actual energy. The “advances” being touted for renewables are thus overstated by a factor of 3 to 10.

      What electricity they do produce is expensive and unreliable, and as I discussed above, unreliability is not just an inconvenience but a mortal danger. Renewables require redundant overbuilds, redundant transmission lines, expensive storage facilities, and lots of fossil-fuel “back-up”—which is code for a gas plant with a few windmills as greenwash.

      Renewables are popular in theory but not in practice. Renewable projects often stir fierce opposition from local residents, especially from environmentalists.
      (http://www.utilityproducts.com/news/2012/08/09/environmentalists-fight-solar-wind-renewable-energy-none-of-the-above-policy-greens-openly-hostile-t.html) The opponents have a point. If built at scale, every landscape will be dominated by wind turbines—not pretty Dutch water-colors, but flailing, whooshing, 40-story industrial installations. Solar power ravages the land like no other technology. To replace the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant with solar power would require 185 square miles to be paved over with panels or mirrors sitting atop barren, scraped-bare earth—that’s almost the size of the Fukushima 20-km evacuation zone itself. That’s every solar plant, and we will need many thousands of therm. From the standpoint of classical environmentalism—the movement to protect land and wildlife from industrialization—renewables are an unmitigated catastrophe.

      Because of their great expense, of which the cost of the generators themselves is just a fraction, their feeble and unreliable energy production, the difficulties of deploying them in scale, the strong political opposition they arouse, their colossal environmental bootprint and their persistent dependence on gas and coal back-up, renewables are a bad choice to displace fossil fuels. If we insist that they be our main response to global warming, then that response will be slow, inadequate, incomplete and very ugly. And if renewables are used first as a pretext for eliminating the clean energy from nuclear plants, as greens would like, it will be completely futile for a long time.

      If anti-nuke greens have their way, over the next ten years an enormous effort and expense will be put into building renewables, and at the end of that time very little progress will have been made in decarbonizing our energy system. Greens will blame that failure on the Republicans, the “corporations,” the remaining nuclear plants they haven’t yet succeeded in shutting down—on everything in the world except their own dogmatic “intuitions.”

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    3. Why do you think China has invested in wind power then? 60 GW so far- the leader in the pack . They are hardly tree hugging greens!

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    4. Right, Dave, the Chinese are throwing everything at the wall, renewables included, to see what sticks.

      But wind hasn’t been working too well for them to judge from the stats on Wikipedia, the only source I can find. If the production figures are right, China’s wind capacity factors are just 12-16 percent, the lowest I’ve ever seen. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_in_the_People%27s_Republic_of_China)

      In part that’s because they only have 72 percent of their wind turbines hooked up to the grid, apparently. One pitfall of wind and solar is that you have to run transmission lines a thousand miles out to the depopulated deserts and steppes, and that puts a serious crimp in deployment.

      One possible reason the Chinese are so gung-ho on wind is that domestic deployment helps build up their manufacturing capacity so that their exports can dominate the lucrative Western market—so far it’s working.

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    5. Solar PV (and also solar thermal) is mainly roof top stuff so transmission distances are feet, not 'thousands of miles'. It's true that, except in remote areas, PV makes most sense if fed to grids to make use of any excess and import when there is no power available, but so far the only solar technology that is seen as needing long distance transmission as an essential feature is big utility scale CSP and CPV.

      China (like Japan) has been exporting PV for many years. Like Japan it's only just now started using it at home in a big way. That's the reverse of the normal business pattern- as you say, develop a domestic sales base first and then move on to exports later. But it's been very successful in exporting PV- something the USA evidently sees as unfair!

      But on wind,I'm not aware of much of an export market yet- its mainly a national programme. Do remember that China's target is to get 15% of primary energy from non-fossil fuels by 2020, with most of that being renewables. The nuclear target was to increase from 2% of electricity to 4% by 2020, although that's now been cut back, post Fukushima, with all new projects still hold. The potential wind resource is put a 2-3 TW.

      Personally I see solar thermal becoming major option. Globally there is now around 250 GW (th) in place, more than wind (240GW).

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    6. Dave, rooftop solar PV is a terrible idea. Because it isn’t optimally sited, usually doesn’t track the sun and can’t easily be cleaned, it has much worse performance even than utility-scale solar. In Germany solar farms struggle up to capacity factors of 10-13 percent, but German solar as a whole only gets 8 percent capacity factor because of the abysmal performance of all that rooftop PV. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_in_Germany) If we want serious solar power we will have to run transmission lines to deserts.

      --“Do remember that China’s target is to get 15 % of primary energy from non-fossil fuels by 2020, with most of that being renewables.”

      I’m afraid I don’t remember that. And when you say renewables, do you mean wind and solar, or do you mean hydro and maybe biomass, which are by far the most common renewable?. Hydro and biomass are cheap and pretty reliable (though with severe problems of scaling and environmental damage), wind and solar are not.

      --What do you mean when you say that there is 250 GW of “solar thermal?” You don’t mean solar thermal electric generation, do you?-- because Wiki lists that at about 19 GW(e) built, under construction or “announced” as of 2011. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_solar_thermal_power_stations). Do you mean solar hot water heaters? I’m all for those in sunny climes, but they are not going to power the grid.

      --“The potential wind resource is put at 2-3 TW.”

      Statements like that are so meaningless that I don’t even want a reference for it. It doesn’t matter how much of a diffuse energy source is “out there;” what matters is the cost and logistics of actually harvesting it. You know what’s an even bigger power source? The tiny fluctuations in the cosmic background radiation—way more than 2-3 terrawatts! All we have to do is put a generator in between those little space-heat wrinkles and we’ll have more energy than we know what to do with!

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    7. The 250GW of solar thermal was for heat production not for electricity: see the new IEA roadmap http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/name,28277,en.html
      But I see meeting heat demand as just as important.

      China already get 17% of its electricity from renewables, mostly large and medium hydro. The new 15% of total energy supply 2020 target is on top of that, with wind, more hydro, PV, biomass/waste combustion and CSP playing their part for electricity, solar and biomass/gas supplying heat.

      To get this, taking account of the load factors, which as you say, are low for some, the Chinese government’s current draft plan calls for 300 GW of hydro, 150 GW of wind, 30 GW of biomass, and 20 GW of PV; a total of 500 GW of renewable power capacity by 2020 . That is almost a third of China’s expected total capacity of 1600GW by then.

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    8. It would be interesting to get a ref on those stats.

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    9. Renewables 2010 Global Status Report, REN21,
      2010: www.ren21.net
      www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2010/07/renewable-energy-policy-update-for-china and www.martinot.info
      China is moving so fast data gets dated quickly.

      The 2012 REN21 report says China ended 2011 with an estimated 282 GW or renewables; 70 GW non-hydro. That's already very out of date. There was 62 GW of wind by mid 2012 and PV is c booming. I agree they are having problems getting it all grid linked, but they are now working on that with new HVDC links.

      The 2012 REN 21 s gives the following shorter term targets:

      Wind 100 GW on-grid by 2015;
      5 GW offshore by 2015 and 30 GW offshore by 2020
      Solar 15 GW by 2015 (1 GW CSP)
      Hydro 284 GW by 2015
      Biofuels 5 million tonnes of ethanol fuel used between 2011 and 2015

      I suspect they will over take them.

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  15. Hi Will,
    nothing is perfect. But it seems that it should be possible to find uncontroversial places for wind, and especially solar farms. And you can have a small solar panel on the balcony of your city apartment. Yes, my intuition says: cool. A nuclear reactor on my balcony: very uncool. Sure, call me crazy.

    There are, of course, technical issues, mostly having to do with distribution. But these are *technical issues*. Technology evolves, issues get resolved, disappear. In your nuclear scenario it's the opposite, unfortunately: you quickly run out of the cheap stuff, and then getting it only becomes more and more expensive and complicated. Not a very exciting prospect, I must say. Again, why bother, why fight all that great resistance, for something that has no future, long-term?

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  16. Will,
    I spent my working life at the other end of the system – looking at how radiation or other agents damage DNA, and how that damage is repaired. Ionising radiation, the sort released at Fukushima, produces fairly similar DNA damage to the damage caused every day by reactive oxygen species in large amounts in our own bodies. There is however one important difference. Because of the way the energy is deposited, radiation causes clusters of damage, both strands of the DNA are damaged, and there is no good strand to act as a template for repair. This has two consequences: Firstly, the cell can only tolerate relatively small amounts of damage before being killed. (Which is why radiotherapy can be an effective treatment for cancer. Although the dose that kills cancer cells also kills normal cells, it is too low to affect RNA and protein synthesis, so that a normal cell can continue to do its day job, it just can't divide again.) Secondly, there is a high chance of the repair process (non-homologous end rejoining) making errors. Damage produced by even the lowest doses of radiation is NOT harmless, because it is still clustered.
    For this reason, I get uncomfortable when people try to argue that because epidemiology does not show an effect, no effect is there. Each cluster of damage is like a lottery ticket, where the chances of winning are tiny, but you would much rather not get the prize. I am not an expert, but I would be less worried about statistical evidence for early cancers, and more worried about hard-to-detect effects on ageing, or slightly accelerating the development of late common cancers.
    I am not arguing against nuclear power. There is still a valid case that the contribution of radiation leakage will be trivial compared to other hazards, (you can damage DNA quite impressively with saturated fats for example – they generate reactive oxygen species). Furthermore, it may well be that nuclear power is the least bad option. But please be careful how you argue the case.

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    1. Michael, thanks for your comment.

      There’s no doubt that radiation damages DNA; the issue is how much, at what doses, and whether there is a threshold dose below which the damage is negligible or nil. Evidence from both epidemiology and lab studies of the effects of radiation on cells and DNA poses some challenges to the “no safe dose” assumption.

      The Linear No-Threshold theory, the “no safe dose” basis for official radiation-protection standards, says there is no threshold of harm: damage and risk from radiation is linearly proportional to the dose, so that even a minuscule dose carries a minuscule risk. LNT is the rationale for positing serious harm from nuclear accidents: a lot of tiny risks to many people getting tiny radiation doses could amount to substantial collective harm.

      But at low doses LNT is conjectural—the risks are so small that epidemiological studies just can’t detect them. In its authoritative BEIR VII report on the biological effects of radiation, the National Academy of Sciences endorses LNT, but says that a threshold effect can’t be ruled out because “at doses of 100 mSv or less, statistical limitations make it difficult to evaluate cancer risks in humans”—in other words, the risk is too small to observe empirically. As for other health problems like premature aging, BEIR VII says “there is no direct evidence of increased risk of non-cancer diseases at low doses, and data are inadequate to quantify this risk if it exists.” Maybe someday a sufficiently powerful epidemiological microscope will detect these risks, but for now all we can say is that they are too small to measure—exactly as I (carefully, and correctly) phrased it.

      My post and the papers I cited assume LNT. I also framed radiation risks in terms of a stochastic risk—a one in one hundred chance of winning a dreadful cancer “lottery,” as you put it, for people in maximally contaminated areas. So my comments are in line with the consensus of radiation science.

      But I do have doubts about LNT, beyond the epistemological problem of assuming risk for a dose range in which that risk is probably forever unobservable. I think it’s quite possible that low-dose radiation is either innocuous or drastically less harmful than LNT indicates.

      In regions like the Colorado plateau elevated natural radiation gives people unusually high doses with no corresponding increase in cancer rates or other signs of ill health.

      You’ve emphasized the microscopic damage that even small radiation exposures do to DNA, but some studies of those effects may also conflict with LNT. These recent reports from Lawrence Berkeley Lab
      (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3258602/?tool=pubmed)
      (http://newscenter.lbl.gov/news-releases/2011/12/20/low-dose-radiation/) and MIT (http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1104294)
      suggest that DNA repair mechanisms—including repair of the double-strand breaks you discuss—are much more efficient and accurate at low radiation doses and dose rates, possibly pointing to a threshold radiation dose below which permanent DNA damage falls off disproportionately.

      I don’t think the science right now either proves or disproves LNT at low doses. What LNT does show us is that the radiation risks from nuclear accidents, if they exist, are much smaller than other everyday risks that we take for granted—particularly the risks of other energy sources.

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    2. Michael, thanks for your comment.

      There’s no doubt that radiation damages DNA; the question is how much, at what doses, and whether there is a threshold dose below which the damage is negligible. Epidemiology and lab studies of the effects of radiation on cells and DNA both pose some challenges to the “no safe dose” assumption.

      The Linear No-Threshold theory, the “no safe dose” basis for official radiation-protection standards, says there is no threshold of harm: health risk from radiation is linearly proportional to the dose, so that even a minuscule dose carries a minuscule risk. LNT is the rationale for positing serious harm from nuclear accidents: a lot of tiny risks to many people getting tiny radiation doses could amount to substantial collective harm.

      But at low doses LNT is conjectural—the risks are so small that epidemiological studies just can’t detect them. In its authoritative BEIR VII report on the biological effects of radiation, the National Academy of Sciences endorses LNT, but says that a threshold effect can’t be ruled out because “at doses of 100 mSv or less, statistical limitations make it difficult to evaluate cancer risks in humans”—in other words, the risk is too small to observe empirically. (http://dels-old.nas.edu/dels/rpt_briefs/beir_vii_final.pdf) As for other health problems like premature aging, “there is no direct evidence of increased risk of non-cancer diseases at low doses, and data are inadequate to quantify this risk if it exists.” Maybe someday a sufficiently powerful epidemiological microscope will detect these risks, but for now they are too small to measure—exactly as I (carefully, and correctly) phrased it.

      My post and the papers I cited assume LNT. I also framed radiation risks in terms of a stochastic risk—a one in one hundred chance of winning a dreadful cancer “lottery,” as you put it, for people in maximally contaminated areas. So my comments are in line with the consensus of radiation science.

      But I do have doubts about LNT, beyond the epistemological problem of assuming risk for a dose range in which that risk is probably forever unobservable. I think it’s quite possible that low-dose radiation is either innocuous or drastically less harmful than LNT indicates.

      You’ve emphasized the microscopic damage that even small radiation exposures do to DNA, but some studies of those effects may also conflict with LNT. These recent reports from Lawrence Berkeley Lab
      (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3258602/?tool=pubmed)
      (http://newscenter.lbl.gov/news-releases/2011/12/20/low-dose-radiation/) and MIT (http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1104294)
      suggest that DNA repair mechanisms—including repair of the double-strand breaks you discuss—are much more efficient and accurate at low radiation doses and dose rates, possibly pointing to a threshold radiation dose below which permanent DNA damage falls off disproportionately.

      I don’t think the science right now either proves or disproves LNT at low doses. What LNT does show us is that the radiation risks from nuclear accidents, if they exist, are much smaller than other everyday risks that we take for granted—particularly health risks from other energy sources.

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    3. @ Michael Green

      --“I would be less worried about statistical evidence for early cancers, and more worried about hard-to-detect effects on ageing, or slightly accelerating the development of late common cancers.”

      No, that’s really the sort of thing we should be getting away from. Fretting over patently unobservable consequences like “hard-to-detect effects on ageing” or “slightly accelerating the development of late common cancers” will simply feed a paranoid radiophobia. These conjectural effects are too small and ill-defined to be demonstrated scientifically, yet open-ended enough to encourage people to blame all their ailments on radiation without any evidence: “Fukushima is turning my hair gray!” We need to steer the discussion of nuclear power away from neurotic anxiety and towards the science.

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    4. Will,
      Thank you so much for responding, and for the interesting references.

      One of the gratifying things about the last years before I retired was that we were starting to be able to measure DNA damage at doses well below those where you see any obvious biological effect. The trouble with epidemiology is that you need four times as much data to achieve twice the precision. The beauty of measuring damage at very low doses is that you can start to extrapolate up. My point was that clustering of damage means that even at low doses of radiation, the damage cannot be repaired completely accurately. So that even the lowest doses are likely to have SOME effect. However, you are quite right that higher doses are more damaging, and the papers you cite on migration of damage to repair sites give a plausible mechanism. I have been retired too long, only after I put in the comment, I thought about radiation cell survival curves, which show an approximately dose-squared shape.

      I would, however, try to defend my comments on ageing and common cancers. When you irradiated cultured cells, you don't get a situation where the cells either die or grow normally. At higher doses, EVERY surviving cell grows abnormally. Furthermore, many cells do not die immediately, but divide a few times and stop. The process is astonishingly similar to the effect of telomere shortening. (Each time a cell divides, the chromosome ends become shorter, until after a while the cell can no longer divide. There is a special repetitive sequence of DNA at the end, the telomere. There is an enzyme system that can extend this sequence, but it is inactive in most cells. Human ageing can partly be explained in terms of telomere shortening.) I spent several years trying and failing to convince my friend and colleague, who was studying cell senescence, that he should see whether radiation was a good model for accelerated ageing. (To be fair to your case, this will be more of a higher dose effect).

      On common cancers, radiation is very effective at inducing some genetic effects - loss of gene function, or unexpected gene activation through rearrangement of chromosomes. It is relatively poor at inducing other changes, such as missense mutations. If common cancers are the result of several sequential events, you would expect radiation to be effective in pushing the process forward, but not to be effective in every step of the process. You might also expect synergy with carcinogens which had different mechanisms. Carcinogens like asbestos are easy to detect because they produce a large effect on a rare cancer. Small effects on a common cancer are much harder.
      I guess from your point of view, you would expect low doses to lead mainly to loss of function of an individual gene, whereas higher doses would produce more chromosome rearrangements with a wider range of effects.

      Enough rambling
      Michael

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  17. You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with your blog.

    Dominic

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  18. You didn't mention security or proliferation issues. I guess some mad anti wind zealots in Vermont might bomb a wind farm, but otherwise I would not have thought renewables present much of a terrorist/ security threat, although the RAF did famously bomb damns in Germany during WWII. But no way do renewables present a risk of weapons proliferation.

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    1. Dave, the concern about nuclear proliferation is a red herring. Having civilian nuclear power plants does not much help a country develop nuclear weapons, nor does a lack of civilian plants impede a weapons program.

      The two ways to get explosive material for a nuclear bomb are to 1) enrich uranium, or 2) breed plutonium in a reactor.

      You don’t need a reactor at all to enrich uranium. People worry that a civilian nuclear program can be a “cover” and pretext for a weapons-grade enrichment program, but as the furor surrounding the Iranian enrichment program suggests, the “cover”—e.g. the Bushehr nuclear power plant--doesn’t work.

      Reactors do breed plutonium, but getting your plutonium from a civilian power plant is the hardest and most expensive possible way to do it. Fuel rods come out of a civilian plant all gunked up with other isotopes that have to be removed, with extraordinary difficulty, before the refined Pu-239 can be used in a bomb; this is something that no group other than a national government with established reprocessing and enrichment capabilities can do. The easy way to get plutonium is to do it in a small research reactor that’s super-cheap and easy to hide from UN inspectors and Israeli fighter-bombers; that’s the way all nuclear weapons programs have done it.

      Most countries that have the bomb got it before they built civilian nuclear plants. Most countries that have civilian nuclear plants don’t have the bomb. And, of course, the issue is completely moot when it comes to building nuclear plants in countries that already have the bomb. Diplomacy and arms control efforts can curb proliferation—banning civilian nukes will not.

      As far as terrorists bombing NPPs, yes, that’s one disaster scenario—though one of the more unlikely. But as we’ve seen at Fukushima, big explosions at NPPs result in health effects that are too small to measure. As Josh remarked above, the point is not that nuclear accidents or terrorist strikes can’t happen, it’s that when they do happen their consequences are not severe enough to warrant panic or abolition or even evacuation. Because the stakes are so low, we don’t need to worry much about exotic scenarios.

      It’s true that diffuse wind power isn’t vulnerable to concentrated terror strikes. But it is vulnerable to sultry high-pressure systems; as I argued above, that vulnerability could plausibly lead to blackouts with catastrophic casualties greater than those of nuclear spews. The unreliability and feeble output of wind and solar can have serious safety and health effects in many ways, hidden and overt. We need to think harder about the casual assumption that renewables are safer than nukes.

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    2. The only country that I can think of that has developed nuclear weapons (so far) without having a civil nuclear programme is Israel

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    3. Dave, that’s kind of misleading. The question isn’t whether a country has an announced civilian nuclear program appended to its weapons program, but whether the weapons program is in any way materially assisted by having a civilian NPP program. Only if the latter is true does civilian nuclear power become a proliferation issue.

      History shows that the weapons program usually comes first and is pursued quite independently of civilian nuclear power; indeed, it’s usually the weapons program that drives the development of civilian nukes, not the other way around.

      -U. S: first bomb: 1945. First civilian NPP: 1958

      -USSR: first bomb: 1949. First Civilian NPP: 1954

      -UK: First bomb: 1952 First Civilian NPP: 1953

      France: First bomb: 1960 First Civilian NPP: 1963

      China : First bomb: 1964. First Civilian NPP: 1991

      India: First bomb: 1974; First Civilian NPP: 1972

      Pakistan: First Bomb: 1998. First Civilian NPP: 1972

      Israel: hundreds of bombs, still no civilian NPPs

      North Korea: First atom bomb: 2003 First Civilian NPP: still not online

      South Africa had the bomb but gave it up; it still has a civilian nuclear program.

      Lots of countries—Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, Japan, Taiwan, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Canada, Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria, Germany—have civilian nuclear plants but no bomb.

      So, with the exception of India and Pakistan, there’s no causal link between the presence of civilian nuclear power and the bomb. And India and Pakistan surely would have gotten the bomb anyway, just as 7 other countries did without civilian power plants.

      The claim that nuclear power causes nuclear weapons proliferation is clearly a canard.

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    4. OK , but it can enable it. And as Iran illustrates, it's sometimes very hard to tell what reactors or enrichment processes are being (or will be) used for.

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    5. No! We know for certain that the Bushehr power plant will not be used for a weapons program. That's what the completely separate and unrelated centrifuge enrichment facility is for: to enrich uranium, possibly for a bomb (or not). No weapons-grade uranium or plutonium will come from the Bushehr plant, as I argued above. We know that for a fact. That's why the Israelis didn't bother attacking the Bushehr plant--they know that, like all civilian NPPs, it poses no proliferation risk.

      Enrichment is a completely separate activity from power generation.

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  19. A couple of comparative points on renewables:
    Offshore wind is now attaining load factors of nearly 50%. The average load factor for nuclear plants in the UK 2006-2010 was 60%. On land wind is the cheapest source on the grid in some locations, PV could well become so soon in some areas.

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    1. Dave, the average capacity factor for the (pre-Fukushima) global reactor fleet was about 85 percent. (http://www.world-nuclear.org/uploadedFiles/REPORT_OptimizCapacity.pdf) In the United States it was 90 percent or higher during 2006-10. (http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/nuregs/staff/sr1350/v23/sr1350v23-sec-2.pdf) Other countries like Finland and South Korea also have fleetwide CFs of 90 percent or higher. The UK capacity factors are low because, being British, they use eccentric Magnox and gas-cooled reactors instead of the more common and reliable light-water reactors.

      There are some offshore wind turbines in great sites that get higher than normal capacity factors in the 40+ percent range. But the aggregate performance of wind doesn’t look so good. (http://www.decc.gov.uk/publications/basket.aspx?filetype=4&filepath=Statistics%2fsource%2frenewables%2fdukes6_5.xls&minwidth=true#basket) From 2007 through 2011 offshore wind in the UK had an average capacity factor of 29.84 percent, with the highest being 36.8 percent in 2011. Onshore wind’s average CF was 26.18 percent. And the UK has some of the best wind in the world. So the UK’s unusually good wind power is still drastically less reliable than its unusually bad nuclear power.

      Wind and especially solar are getting cheaper, but I’m not sure they are the cheapest source anywhere (any refs on that?) You don’t say whether those are subsidized or unsubsidized prices (all wind and solar kilowatt-hours are subsidized.) Also, wind and solar aren’t charged for the large hidden costs that their diffuseness and unreliability imposes on the grid—costs like redundant transmission capacity, pumped-hydro or other storage, the necessity of building and maintaining fossil-fuel back-up, which itself must start to be subsidized when subsidized, legally must-buy renewables eat into the sales of fossil-fuel plants. The costs of wind and solar only begin with the generators themselves.

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    2. Wind the cheapest source on the Californian grid
      www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Comparative_electrical_generation_costs

      Load factor for Danish Horns Rev II offshore wind farm 47.7%
      http://energynumbers.info/capacity-factors-at-danish-offshore-wind-farms

      The 60% average UK nuclear load factor figure includes the 1.3 GW PWR at Sizewell

      A 2011 report for the UK Government Climate Change Committee by Consultants Mott Macdonald concluded that the levelized cost for UK on-land wind was currently £83-93/MWh, nuclear £89/MWh
      They put the figures for 2020 at £63-72/MWh for wind and £63-90/MWh for nuclear and for 2040 at £51-61/MWh (wind) £50-57/MWh (nuclear). They admitted to be bullish about nuclear cost reductions. It is true that wind needs backup, but the cost of this grid balancing is put at up to £2.5/MWh for contributions to supply of up to around 20%. Nuclear also needs backup reserves. National Grid estimated that cost of providing this for six new 1800 MW nuclear plants power stations on the system could be around £160m which is about £1.7/MWh.

      At present offshore wind projects are getting £135/MWh while the proposed new nuclear plants are said to be trying to get up to £140/MWh, although some say more like £165/MWh will actually be need. It is widely assumed that offshore wind costs will fall to around £100/MWh by around 2020 as new technology is introduced.

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    3. The £1.7/MWh reserve capacity costs for nuclear assumed a 100% nuclear load factor. At 70% LF it would be around £2.4MWh, similar the the balancing cost for 20% wind

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    4. @ Dave, on wind being the cheapest electricity source in California:

      The devil is in the details of energy cost estimates. The one you’ve cited, from the California Public Utility Commission, makes a lot of assumptions that improperly understate the costs of wind and inflate the costs of nuclear. We can see that if we delve into the spreadsheet you linked to (hard work, but worth it.)

      The CPUC study gave a levelized busbar cost of electricity estimate for onshore wind of 8.910 cents per KWh, for supercritical coal of 10.554 cents/KWh and for nuclear 15.316 cents/KWh. But the wind figure includes a 1.9 cent per KWh production tax credit, which levelizes to 1.5 cents per KWh. Factoring out that subsidy brings the wind LCOE up to 10.41 cents per KWh. (And that’s not counting other tax breaks the study factored in for renewables but not for other energy sources.)

      The study also assumed a wildly exaggerated onshore wind capacity factor of 37 percent. The actual capacity factor of California’s onshore wind turbines over the last 3 years was about 25 percent. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_in_California#Installed_capacity_growth) Using the observed capacity factor would raise the study’s LCOE estimate for California onshore wind by 48 %, to 15.4 cents per KWh, substantially more expensive than coal and a shade more than nuclear’s 15.3 cents per KWh.

      But nuclear is cheaper yet because the study adopts a narrow and misleading time frame for its cost estimate. It’s calculation is just for the “Financing Life” of 20 years—that is, the period over which the capital costs are paid off. Wind turbines wear out in 20-30 years because they are exposed to the elements, while nukes are rated for 60 years. (Part of what makes nukes so expensive is their extraordinary robustness, which spells longevity.) So after a nuke pays off the mortgage, which is most of its LCOE, it can look forward to 40 years—maybe longer—of operation when it’s costs are dominated by operations and maintenance, which are very cheap. Wind Operations and Maintenance are maybe a penny a kilowatt hour cheaper than nuclear, but a wind turbine only has 5-10 years after the mortgage is paid off in which to operate in that ultra-cheap regime before it’s scrapped.

      So, when you average the costs over the whole operational life, nuclear is substantially cheaper than wind. And that’s before adding in the costs of redundant transmission, storage, etc. And if we drive nuclear’s capital costs down through mass deployment, nuclear would look even better.

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    5. @ Dave, on the 47.7 % capacity factor offshore wind farm in Denmark:

      Your source puts the fleetwide capacity factor for Denmark’s offshore wind farms at 38.6 percent. That’s sensational for wind, but not reliable enough to run a grid on.

      It’s not good to cherry-pick the best wind farms as if they were representative. That could mislead people about the aggregate performance of wind.

      --Yes, Dave, one of Britain’s reactors is a light-water reactor, but the other eight are Magnoxes or gas-cooled, types which are very rare.

      Clearly Britain’s reactor fleet is an outlier. It is misleading to cite its low capacity factors as representative of the nuclear industry.

      --on the cost of nuclear vs. wind in Britain:

      Right, the costs for onshore wind and nuclear do overlap in a lot of forecasts. Your Mott MacDonald source doesn’t include in their estimates things like redundant transmission lines, electricity storage and fossil-fuel backup for renewables, so they’re not giving us a full picture of the costs.

      They do hold out hope for major cost-reductions in nuclear, if their “bullish scenario”—which just means that the British government builds as many nukes as they say they will—comes true. As I argued above, a mass deployment of nukes will drive down costs through economies of scale. If a government really focuses on cranking out cheap nukes, as they have in China and Korea, maybe costs could go much lower than M and M forecast.

      --“It is widely assumed that offshore wind costs will fall to around 100 pounds/Mwh by 2020.”

      The Mott MacDonald report you cite puts offshore wind at 120-130 pounds per MWh in 2020, and 100-130 pounds per Mwh in 2040. (http://hmccc.s3.amazonaws.com/Renewables%20Review/MML%20final%20report%20for%20CCC%209%20may%202011.pdf) p.22-3.

      --I’m afraid I’m having difficulty locating the National Grid statistics you refer to on the reserve capacity costs for nuclear and wind. Could you provide a link, and perhaps page numbers?

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    6. @ Dave, On the reserve capacity costs of backing up wind vs. nuclear:

      The costs you cited for wind assume just a 20 percent “penetration”—that is, it assumes that wind generates just 20 % of the electricity. That’s nowhere close to what we need to do to address global warming. The costs of integrating wind into the grid-- extra transmission, redundant overbuild, storage and back-up--will get drastically higher if wind is to make a really decisive contribution to decarbonizing the electricity supply.

      Reserve capacity for nuclear is a straightforward matter of building a few extra reactors to provide a margin for rare unintended plant outages. In the United States, with its rock-solid 90 % capacity factors, that means perhaps an extra 10-20 percent overbuild of reactors.

      Solar and wind, on the other hand, are vulnerable to “common mode failures”—episodes of cloud, calm and darkness when most of the generating capacity across the whole country slumps for days on end. To counteract these incidents, solar and wind need huge amounts of back-up which is not solar or wind and thus not vulnerable to the common-mode failure. That back-up will either be nuclear or fossil fuel. If you rule out nuclear, than a nominally renewables grid will have to burn large amounts of coal and gas as backup.

      Nuclear in France has already achieved a 75 % penetration; along with hydro, 90 % of France’s electricity is clean. And France’s electricity is the some of the cheapest in Western Europe, so the costs of that penetration are negligible.

      Backing up nuclear is a much simpler, cheaper and cleaner proposition than backing up wind and solar.

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  20. Overall, stepping aside from the techy details, I view the situation more or less exactly in the reverse way to you.

    A focus on nuclear seems to me to hinder and slow the development of much better, easier, cheaper safer and more reliable and sustainable renewable energy supply options and energy efficiency/demand side measures.

    Nuclear has had the lions share of funding for new energy tech for many decades, but with much less effort renewables have now more or less matched it.

    I could go on, but I will just explore the reliability issue, since that seem important to you.

    As Climate change impacts more, nuclear and other steam raising tech will find it increasingly hard to operate- France has had to shut down n-plants most summers in recent years due to the temperature of the cooling waters from rivers being too high (or more strictly since the exit temperature would be to high). And it's not just rivers: I see that a nuclear plant in Connecticut USA had to shut down in August when the sea
    water it used for cooling reached 75F! Sea water cooled plants will also of course also have to face rising sea levels and storm inundation threats.

    If we try to have a large basically inflexible nuclear element and a large variable renewable energy element on the grid then we will have operational clashes. Both have low marginal (running) costs, so you want to run them 24/7 if possible. But which gives way when demand is low as at night in summer? UK baseload is around 20GW. We could be approaching that for both nukes and renewabes soon. You can't have and don't need both- they conflict. Nukes are not much use at backing up variable renewables (there are cost and safety penalties from variable operation- they cant load follow rapidly and regularly). And large centralised infexible nukes do not fit well in the newly emerging smart grid system based on matching local supplies to local needs.

    So, quite apart from all their other problems, I see nukes as a problem not a solution. That's not to say there are not problems with renewables, but that's the more worthwhile challenge, in my view

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    1. @ Dave, on nukes shutting down in hot weather:

      Yes very occasionally a few nukes have to throttle back in summer, usually because the water outlet temperature violates environmental standards, sometimes because the water intake temperature is too high to cool the plant. (The Connecticut plant is back on line now, http://www.bostonherald.com/business/general/view/20120827connecticut_nuclear_plant_unit_reopens_with_cooler_water/) These shutdowns bare make a scratch in nuclear’s high capacity factors. The problem happens to every steam-powered plant, including solar thermal electricity plants; with them it’s even worse because they are usually located in arid regions.

      The heat-up will also crimp wind too, because capacity factors drop in sultry summer weather. Solar thrives on sunshine, but heat somewhat degrades PV efficiency. Solar can also be affected by three extremely rare climate-related conditions known as “winter,” “clouds” and “night.”

      Your claim that nuclear at 85 to 90 percent capacity factors is less reliable than solar and wind with 10 to 35 % capacity factors is just a little too Orwellian for me.

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    2. @ Dave:

      --“Nukes are not much use at backing up variable renewables (there are cost and safety penalties from variable operation—they can’t load follow rapidly and regularly).”

      Dave, that’s quite wrong. Nukes can be designed to load follow—that is, vary their output to match electricity demand—just fine. The EPR reactor, for example, can adjust its power between 60 and 100 % at a rate of 50-80 MW per minute—almost as fast as a gas plant. (http://www.areva.com/EN/global-offer-419/epr-reactor-one-of-the-most-powerful-in-the-world.html) The French reactor fleet load-follows constantly, with an exemplary cost and safety record.

      It’s quite misleading—indeed, flat-out false--to insinuate that nuclear reactors are less “flexible” than wind and solar, which have no flexibility at all. Nukes can throttle up to meet peak demand and then throttle back for night-time baseload. They are “dispatchable”--they can put out exactly as much power as is demanded, whenever it’s needed. The output of solar and wind, by contrast, is both chaotic and utterly rigid. Solar will put out no power at all at night and little under cloud cover, and wind will put out little when it’s calm—they have no ability whatsoever to respond to changing load.

      Your statement that “you can’t have and don’t need both” nuclear and renewables is thus only half-true. We certainly can have both. And we will surely need to have “something else” to back up solar and wind most of the time when they are generating a small fraction of their nominal capacity, or nothing at all; if that back-up isn’t nuclear, it will be fossil fuels. But you’re right that you don’t “need” both. To build an entirely superflous wind and solar system that still needs virtually 100 % backup from an additional dispatchable source like nuclear is indeed senseless.

      --“And large centralised inflexible nukes do not fit well in the newly emerging smart grid system.”

      Dave, this is circular reasoning. The whole reason we need a “smart grid” in the first place is to desperately juggle the chaotic, intermittent wind and solar generators that Greens insist we switch to. Reliable, dispatchable, flexible nuclear generators will work just fine on the smart grid—but even better, they obviate the need for one: they can shoulder the task of matching supply to load by themselves. I really don’t want a smart grid; it’s just an electricity-rationing system run by computer—which means constant annoying, divisive and possibly dangerous micro-blackouts or price surges. No thanks.

      As for nukes being bad at “matching local supplies to local needs”—no! Greens have the sentimental idea that renewables are more “local” than nuclear, but that’s totally backwards. In a renewables grid all electricity is the product of the decentralized continent-wide grid, which is the polar opposite of locally-controlled generation. Because depopulated prairies and deserts are the most productive areas for wind and solar, most of the electrons people use—all of them when it’s locally dark, cloudy or calm--would be coming from places hundreds and thousands of miles away. (However, the rationing of renewable electricity during times of weather-induced shortage would indeed require a very coercive central authority.) All grids are decentralized to some extent, but it’s at least possible for a nuclear plant to be devoted to servicing a local region. A “local” renewables grid is impossible.

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    3. My data on load following is different (see below). Yes French and German n-plants can and do follow the well known daily load patterns, but they would find it hard to follow the many smaller hourly variations in output from wind. Fortunately there are much better ways to do that- e.g with frequently and demand side management, as is done any way to balance the grid.

      None of the new PWR (EPR) plants proposed for the UK will be licensed to load follow, I assume since there are worries about undermining their very shaky economics further,

      EDF said 'EPR nuclear plant design can provide levels of flexibility that are comparable to other large thermal plant. However, there are constraints on this flexibility (as there are for other thermal plant). For example, the EPR can ramp up at 5% of its maximum output per minute, but this is from 25% to 100% capacity and is limited to a maximum of 2 cycles per day and 100 cycles a year. Higher levels of cycling are possible but this is limited to 60% to 100% of capacity’.

      EDF's submission to the UK governments renewable energy strategy consultation: ‘UK Renewable Energy Strategy: Analysis of Consultation Responses’ Prepared for: Dept of Energy and Climate Change 2008 File Log Number 00439e p.3 www.berr.gov.uk/files/file50119.pdf

      An EU Joint Research Centre study of ‘Load-following operating mode at Nuclear Power Plants’, says about 10% of their capacity can be used to backup some wind variations, at a cost, but they loose up to 4% of their output. Basically some help if wind capacity is relatively small, as at present, but not much help if we have a lot of variable renewables on the grid though maybe helpful if there are long wind lulls: http://tinyurl.com/6n7grs9


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  21. A final point: I'm not convinced by the argument that nuke accident impacts are small. The death toll from Chernobyl has been put variously at several thousand up to one million. We may never know for sure. But are you seriously saying that's small? Yes coal burning is nearly as bad, but two wrongs don't make a right. Last time I checked about 30 people had been killed working on wind turbines and no public deaths have ever been reported. We now have 250GW of wind running- roughly half the global nuke total.There is clearly no comparison in terms of the direct risks, which is why you fall back on indirect issues like reliability and blackouts. I would instead look to opportunity cost issues- which will face if we slow wind development by diverting resouces to nuclear.

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    1. Dave, the figure of a million deaths from Chernobyl comes from a book by Yablokov et al, Chernobyl Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. This report has been severely criticized by radiation scientists—for example, see Radiation Protection Dosimetry (2010) vol 1 issue 1 pp. 97-101—and even by other anti-nuke groups, like the Union of Concerned Scientists. (http://allthingsnuclear.org/post/4704112149/how-many-cancers-did-chernobyl-really-cause-updated) The studies surveyed by Yablokov are rife with methodological flaws, including a failure to quantify and correlate radiation doses with health effects and a failure to consider confounding variables, including reporting biases and other causes that might explain post-Chernobyl increases in mortality and morbidity. Yablokov et al assume that any increase in death and illness that occurred after 1986 was a result of Chernobyl radiation. That’s not a defensible conclusion, considering the upheaval the region endured during that period because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which brought with it economic decline, demographic shifts, soaring rates of poverty and alcoholism and the breakdown of public health services. All those things can strongly skew the health effects spotlighted by Yablokov.

      More reliable estimates put the Chernobyl toll drastically lower.

      One methodological approach is to estimate the total radiation dose caused by Chernobyl and then calculate a resulting cancer toll based on risk factors derived from studies of Hiroshima survivors and others who absorbed much larger radiation doses. Elisabeth Gronlund of the anti-nuke Union of Concerned scientists, for example, calculates a total Chernobyl cancer death toll, including deaths yet to come, of 27,000, (http://allthingsnuclear.org/post/4704112149/how-many-cancers-did-chernobyl-really-cause-updated) which is in line with other scientists using that methodology.

      But the empirical evidence from careful epidemiological studies finds that Chernobyl health effects are much smaller than those conjectured, but not observed, figures.

      Still the best overview is the 2008 summary of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Airborne Radiation. (www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2008/11-80076_Report_2008_Annex_D.pdf.) This authoritative report shows that there were indeed some serious health effects from Chernobyl in addition to the dozens of emergency workers who died of acute radiation poisoning. The main one was a spike in thyroid cancers among people who were children—adults were not susceptible—at the time of the accident; the 6,000 additional thyroid cancers resulted in just 15 deaths, because thyroid cancer is readily treatable. (The thyroid cancer epidemic could have been prevented by prescribing potassium iodide or a ban on drinking milk where cows grazed on iodine-131-contaminated grass, neither of which the Soviet government instituted. The Japanese government did those things after Fukushima, so there will be no thyroid cancer epidemic there.) In addition, some studies find modest increases in leukemia rates among Chernobyl emergency and clean-up workers with the highest radiation doses, an effect that wavers on the border of statistical significance. (For example, see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19138038).

      Otherwise, UNSCEAR found no conclusive evidence of any serious health effects from Chernobyl among civilians—no elevated non-thyroid cancer rates, nothing. The notion that Chernobyl caused a non-thyroid cancer epidemic, or any significant cancer mortality, or any other kind of mortality at all, is simply false. The observable deaths from Chernobyl number at most in the hundreds. The toll from the Fukushima accident, the subject of this post, is even smaller, and in fact unobservable if it exists at all.

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    2. --“Yes, coal burning is nearly as bad”.

      No Dave, coal burning is hundreds of times worse than nuclear power. Chernobyl’s effects are trivial by comparison.

      According to recent studies by the Clean Air Task Force (www.catf.us/resources/publications/files/The_Toll_from_Coal.pdf) and the American Lung Association (www.lungusa.org/assets/documents/healthy-air/toxic-air-report.pdf) , about 13,000 people die each year in the United States from air pollution from coal-burning power plants. In China 300,000 to 700,000 people a year die from outdoor air pollution there, much of it from coal-burning boilers in power plants. (http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTEAPREGTOPENVIRONMENT/Resources/China_Cost_of_Pollution.pdf, Appendix A.1, p.100). Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that about 1.2 million people die each year from outdoor air pollution. (www.who.int/ipcs/features/air_pollution.pdf) I couldn’t find a precise figure for the portion of those deaths caused by coal-fired power plants, but assuming that it’s the same as in the United States, 19 percent,( http://www.earth-policy.org/plan_b_updates/2002/update17) then coal power is killing about 230,000 people a year. If you add in emissions from oil-fired power plants and the extensive water pollution from coal-burning, the toll from fossil-fueled electricity is higher still.

      But that’s not the end of it. When you include fumes from indoor coal and wood-fired cooking and heating, and air pollution from cars, “combustion pollution” kills about 3 million people a year. (http://www.who.int/ipcs/features/air_pollution.pdf) All of these deaths can be prevented by switching to electric heaters, ranges, and cars powered by nuclear reactors. So in a completely nuclear-powered world, even if we had a Chernobyl every single year, we would still reduce the number of lives lost to energy production by 99 percent or more. That’s not a wrong, Dave, that’s a right.

      The observable health effects of nuclear power plants are so small—perhaps a few hundred casualties at Chernobyl, literally too small to measure at Fukushima and Three Mile Island—that it makes little sense to raise safety alarms over these once-a-generation events. Only an irrational cultural mythology explains the panic over tiny nuclear risks that people would ignore in any other context.

      --And again, as I argued above, renewable-induced blackouts could kill many more people than nuclear spews. That’s a speculation, but it’s quite as plausible as claims that nuclear accidents can cause huge casualties—which so far haven’t come true.

      --“We now have 250 GW of wind running, roughly half the global nuke total.”

      Dave, again, you have to correct for capacity factors. Those 250 GW of wind are the equivalent of maybe 80 GW of nuclear, less than a quarter of nuclear capacity. It’s only by ignoring the stats on wind’s feeble, fickle energy production that we can fool ourselves into thinking that it’s a good substitute for nuclear.

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    3. I agree coal is bad on all counts! But on most everything else we could go on for ever swopping rival statistics.

      So I will just deal with a couple. On load factors, yes old wind sites are worse, so the historical average is lower. I quoted the 47.7% load factor since it was for new technology, and I assume will be repeated and be bettered in new projects and as turbines get larger and more efficient. The UKs DECC assumes 45% for new offshore wind projects.

      The National Grid data on reserve capacity costs for nuclear is from www.nationalgrid.com/NR/rdonlyres/A4B42E9E-A315-47FC- B819-5BE812CE3E6F/41716/GBECM19Consultationv1_0.pdf

      They noted that generators with less than 350 MW capacity, including all operational wind farms in the UK, ‘pose no additional loss risk to the system’.

      More recently, in its statements to the UK Committee of Climate Change, July 2012, ABB, the big grid technology company reported that 'In 2010/11, National Grid procured on average 2.5GW of short term operating reserve (a mix of standby generation and demand reduction) to ensure that it had the necessary capability to balance the system. This reserve capability cost £94m (£74.8m of which was payments for being available to be called upon), or £9.4/MWh of energy called upon. National Grid estimates that 4-6GW of additional short term operating reserves will be needed at high levels of wind penetration (approx 30GW). To put this into context, the UK currently has some 6GW of wind energy installed.’

      I cant resist noting that nuclear plants waste about 70% of the heat release by fission, which of course is a case for CHP/co-ogeneration to use some of this- if anyone will let you build a nuke in or near a city where there is a big heat load. The Soviet regime did- the Lenin nuclear power plant on the outskirts of what is now St Petersburg for example.

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    4. And finally, an independent study I trust on Chernobyl concluded that the ultimate death toll across the region will be around 30,000-60,000 www.chernobylreport.org

      But that's just deaths. There have been many reports of non fatal illnesses. UNSCEAR /WHO tend to see all these as due to stress. Many independent studies disagree, but, with the elapsed time and lack of detailed follow up stidies, we may now never know

      What we do now is that the Chenernbyl plant was operating at very low power at the time of the explosion. And according to some reports, only around 7% of the inventory of radioactive material was vented, so we may yet experience very much worse disasters. As someone who used to work in the nuclear industry, I hope that can be avoided, but I do not have a lot of confidence. Which is why I now work on renewables.

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    5. @ Dave Elliott, on Chernobyl casualties.

      Okay, you say you “trust” the TORCH study which estimates 30-60,000 eventual fatalities from Chernobyl. So let’s agree that a million deaths is out of the question.

      The authors of the TORCH study arrived at those figures by applying a risk factor to dose estimates they got from an older version of the UNSCEAR study. Since then UNSCEAR has revised its worldwide dose estimates from 600,000 man-Sieverts down to 465,000 man-Sv. (http://allthingsnuclear.org/post/4704112149/how-many-cancers-did-chernobyl-really-cause-updated). So according to their methodology the TORCH study overstates the death toll by about 25%, and the range should be 23,000 to 47,000.

      But the TORCH authors admit that those estimates are conjectural. We can calculate the number of dead by multiplying estimated doses by an assumed risk factor derived from high-dose exposures. But we don’t actually observe those deaths. As the TORCH authors write, “few of these excess deaths are likely to be discernible by epidemiological studies” (p. 69).

      To me the gold standard of scientific evidence isn’t theoretical models, but empirical measurements of reality. The empirical evidence of epidemiology suggests that Chernobyl casualties are modest—a small percentage of the TORCH estimate—and trivial in comparison with the huge death toll from fossil fuels, which provokes no panic or calls for abolition.

      --UNSCEAR and WHO take full account of non-fatal health consequences of Chernobyl—including 6000 non-fatal thyroid cancers--and do not attribute them all to stress.

      --The Chernobyl reactor ramped up to extremely high power—that’s why it exploded.

      --The TORCH report that you cite puts the releases of I-131 and radio-cesium, the radionuclides of concern, at 56 % and 33-6 % of the reactor inventory respectively, not 7 %.

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    6. @ Dave Elliott on reseve capacity for wind.

      Your stats say that, for the extra 24 GW of wind nameplate capacity, National Grid will set aside an extra 4-6 GW of short-term operating reserves. The reserves will presumably be dispatchable coal or, more likely, gas plants, ready to jump in when the wind slumps.

      These stats are misleading unless, as always, we use capacity factors to adjust nameplate capacity to average capacity. The average capacity is the average amount a nameplate unit of capacity puts out over time. You get it by multiplying the nameplate capacity by the capacity factor.

      If that 24 GW is onshore wind, with its observed capacity factor of 26 %, its average capacity will only be 6.24 GW. So you’ve got 6.24 GW of wind average capacity backed up by 4-6 GW of dispatchable fossil plants, just sitting there idly waiting for the wind to fail.

      That’s a colossal waste of resources. Those stats imply that for every gigawatt of wind average capacity you have to keep almost as much dispatchable capacity in reserve—an entire second generator fleet with almost as much productive capacity as the wind turbine fleet it’s backing up. All those dispatchable generators will have to be maintained in ready operating condition—new gas plants will be built—along with their infrastructure of coal mines, gas wells and pipelines and storage tanks, LNG terminals and shipping, etc. They will also burn some fuel even when in standby mode, so their greenhouse emissions will be substantial.

      It’s going to cost a lot of money. Current reserve costs are cheap because most generators are reliable and dispatchable and are therefore cheap to back up. There’s only a limited supply of “demand reduction” providers for whom it’s very cheap to suddenly stop using electricity. Costs will not scale linearly; as the demand for reserve increases, the costs per unit of reserve will increase too.

      (I’m afraid your link didn’t work.)

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    7. The National Grid link works for me: http://www.nationalgrid.com/NR/rdonlyres/A4B42E9E-A315-47FC-B819-5BE812CE3E6F/41716/GBECM19Consultationv1_0.pdf

      You say: So you’ve got 6.24 GW of wind average capacity backed up by 4-6 GW of dispatchable fossil plants, just sitting there idly waiting for the wind to fail.

      Well that often happens on the system as it is now; peak matching plant is only used occasionally and the reserve often hardly at all. It's not idea- it would be better if all plants could load follow without loosing efficiency. There are some new CCGT which are much better, but load management is one way to reduce this problem

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    8. @ Will: you write "Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that about 1.2 million people die each year from outdoor air pollution. ([link deleted]) I couldn’t find a precise figure for the portion of those deaths caused by coal-fired power plants, but assuming that it’s the same as in the United States, 19 percent,([link deleted]) then coal power is killing about 230,000 people a year. If you add in emissions from oil-fired power plants and the extensive water pollution from coal-burning, the toll from fossil-fueled electricity is higher still."

      My response is mostly unnecessary given the basic gist of your post and the comment thread conversation ; however in the interest of glassy-eyed minutia, I'd suggest that using the US proportion is incorrect based on the fact (I think it's a fact) that diesel transport is much less common in the US than pretty much everywhere else, and emissions from diesel motors is--or at least historically has been--pretty rank stuff for one's lungs. I don't know how it compares to coal plant emissions. I doubt we're talking re-estimating orders of magnitude here, but anyhow...

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    9. You could be right jte. The figure of 230,000 deaths from coal-fired power plants is a very rough guesstimate. But I think it’s in the ballpark.

      I haven’t been able to find any comprehensive estimate of yearly deaths from coal-fired electricity worldwide. But another way to guesstimate the global toll is to assume that the figure of 13,000 deaths per year from coal pollution in the U. S. is average for the world as a whole. That would put the worldwide death toll at about 293,000 per year.

      Is the U. S. average? Could be. Figures I’ve seen from Britain show about the same per capita death rate from coal pollution, so that rate probably holds for Western Europe. There are certainly underindustrialized parts of the world with few coal-fired power plants—in Africa, say--where the per-capita toll is lower. But there are other places—the former Soviet Bloc, India, China especially—where pollution from coal-fired power plants is definitely worse than in America. Water pollution from coal and oil probably also contributes significantly to the death toll, but I have no idea how much.

      I think “roughly 200,000” is a good ballpark guesstimate of the yearly toll from coal-fired electricity. If anyone can dig up better figures, please pass them along.

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    10. @ jte, to clarify my last comment:

      If there are 13,000 deaths per year among America's 31o million people from pollution from coal-fired power plants, and we assume that per-capita toll is representative for the whole world with 7 billion people, then the global toll from coal-fired electricity would be about 293,000 per year.

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    11. Chernobyl has *permanently* removed farmland from production.

      There really isn't anything worse you can do, thinking in a broad ecological sense about supporting the human race. Equivalently bad choices which can do the same thing include large-scale chemical or heavy metal contamination (not a problem with solar, despite scaremongering claims), salting the earth, and paving land.

      Apart from refineries and chemical factories, only nuclear plants have removed huge volumes of farmland from production and made them useless (not replacing them with cities).

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  22. "The observable health effects of nuclear power plants are so small ... that it makes little sense to raise safety alarms over these once-a-generation events."

    But the share of nuclear power plants is also small; what, must be 10-15%? If for a 10% share it's a once-a-generation event, then in a world that's 100% nuclear it might become a once-in-every-few-years event, no? And, no matter how unlikely, maybe you'll see a Chernobyl-like incident every 10-20 years. Thing becomes routine, safety enforcement becomes lax.

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  23. @ Datatutashkhia,

    I think I covered this above, but let’s do the math one more time.

    Let’s suppose we ramp up nuclear and have a Fukushima-scale spew every year. That’s 15-1300 deaths per year worldwide, with a probable figure of 130. Conjectural deaths, too few to actually measure in epidemiological studies.

    Let’s add a Chernobyl every 10 years. Conjectured deaths for Chernobyl are 27,000, an average of 2700 per year. Observed deaths for Chernobyl are a few hundred.

    So Let’s add the Fukushima yearly upper limit to the Chernobyl yearly upper limit. That’s 4000 deaths per year worldwide.

    In compensation, since it’s now an all-nuclear world we save 200,000 people a year from coal pollution, and 3,000,000 lives a year from all forms of “combustion pollution.”

    So we kill 4000 a year but save 3,000,000 a year.

    And it’s not like we’ll see 4000 bodies lying in the street. That death toll will still be too small to measure in epidemiological studies. What we’ll actually see is people fretting over whether they’ll get cancer some day.

    But people do that anyway. There’s a theory that humans have an anxiety set-point. As modernity reduces the actual risks people face, we make up imaginary risks to fret over so that we keep our anxiety level constant.

    That means that even if we ban nuclear power, people won’t feel any safer. They’ll just fixate on some other innocuous thing to fret over, like vaccines or genetically modified foods. Nuclear power is not a safety problem, it’s a problem of people feeling unsafe, which is something that we can never solve.

    So look at it this way, Datatutashkhia. Since we’re always going to be fretting over something, we might as well have nuclear power to fret over, since nuclear power actually does a lot of good in the world.

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    1. But this is bullshit measurement. A Fukushima every year and a Chernobyl every 10 years and HOW MUCH FARMLAND IS LEFT?

      Get rid of these land-poison bombs. Get rid of the other land-poisoning bombs too (open copper refineries, waste injection wells...)

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  24. Oh dear, yes coal is bad and we should get rid of it fast. But renewables are, I suggest, a much better alternative than nuclear: safer, cheaper over time (no fuel costs), faster to ramp up (in weeks and months, not years/GW) and with no fuel scarcity, security or weapons proliferation issues. You have challenged most of these points. Fair enough. It's a worthwhile debate. There are definately problems with renewables, given the variability of some of them, but I was surprised that a 2011 modelling exercise by UK consultants Poyry calculated that, with smart grids and Demand side management, their ‘max’ electricity scenario (with 94% of electricity coming from renewables by 2050) would only need 21GW of standby peaking plant for back-up. Some of that could I think actually make use of biomass, or green gasses generated electrolytically using excess electricity from wind overproduction. That wind-to-gas idea is currently being developed by E.ON and others in Germany. It's a way of storing energy and balancing the grid. Whether its cheaper than building supergrid links to balance variations across wider geographical areas remains to be seen.

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    1. Dave, maybe the starry-eyed “modelling exercises” of renewables advocates will come true over the next 38 years, and maybe they won’t.

      Here’s what we know, for a fact, that nuclear has already accomplished. In just 20 years in the 1970s through the 1990s France decarbonized 90 percent of its electricity grid by building nuclear (75 percent) and hydro (15 percent). That’s about as much as the renewables scenario you cited, in a little over half the time, and at electricity prices that are some of Europe’s cheapest. (And with no “demand-side management” rationing the electricity.)

      Reality is a better guide than our wistful models of reality.

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    2. Maybe the starry-eyed predictions of nuclear advocates will come true... or maybe all the nuclear plants in the world will go up like Fukushima.

      Reality is a bitch.

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    3. neroden, what's with all the snark? Boisvert is answering every challenge to his data and logic with data and logic. Maybe he's wrong, maybe he's right. For myself, when I see folks on one side of a debate act like insecure twelve year olds, I start thinking the other side must definitely be right.

      So which reality are you talking about? The reality of something like 500 commercial nuclear reactors in the past half century with 1 Chernobyl and 1 Fukishima to date. (Unmentioned that I've seen here are 1 Three Mile Island [with extremely little radiation released] and 1 Sellafield event]. Or the "reality" of no long-term history anywhere of a modern economy relying on majority-renewable power? Nearly "all the nuclear plants" in the world have existed for quite some time, and they self-evidently don't "all" go up like Fukishima. Boisvert's predictions for nuclear have a basis in 50'ish years worth of actual data. We have the example of France to look at that shows that a large, industrial economy is capable of functioning on nuclear power without triggering a new Chernobyl or Fukishima with any kind of regularity. Predictions are still predictions, but there's nothing starry-eyed in this case. On the other hand, there are no examples that I know of of modern economies of basically any size running on half or more renewables. Boisvert might certainly be wrong about the difficulties of renewables to hack it on a major scale, but there definitely is a qualitative difference in the basis for predictions of nuclear capacity and predictions of renewable capacity.

      I think your point above about lost farmland is a worthy contribution to the debate. How many acres were lost from Chernobyl? Pretty much everyone else here has been taking the debate seriously and pushing Boisvert to make his case. If you want to stick to actually debating, bring it on and let's see if you can out-data and out-logic him. If you think the world will be saved by snark, you have more stars in your eyes than the giddy engineers who claimed "too cheap to meter."

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    4. On the other hand, there are no examples that I know of of modern economies of basically any size running on half or more renewables. Boisvert might certainly be wrong about the difficulties of renewables to hack it on a major scale, but there definitely is a qualitative difference in the basis for predictions of nuclear capacity and predictions of renewable capacity.

      According to the IEA, as of 2009 Canada, Austria, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland, Albania, Croatia, Latvia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Brazil, New Zealand, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Venezuela get more than 50% of their electricity from renewables. Most of that is hydroelectricity. France, Belgium, Lithuania, and the Slovak Republic get more than 50% from nuclear. Also according to the IEA, in 2008 world hydroelectric production was about 3208 terawatt hours and nuclear electric production was 2731 terawatt hours.

      There is certainly more technical scope to expand nuclear power than to expand hydroelectricity; most of the world's best hydroelectric resources have already been tapped. There are few technical limits to expand nuclear energy or non-conventional renewables, with renewables facing higher cost on average and nuclear facing higher political resistance. But in terms of absolute growth rates, coal and gas outpace them both combined :-(

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  25. @ Dave Elliott, on nukes not being able to balance wind.

    “Yes French and German n-plants can and do follow the well known daily load patterns, but they would find it hard to follow the many smaller hourly variations in output from wind. Fortunately there are much better ways to do that- e.g with frequently and demand side management, as is done any way to balance the grid.”

    So, what you’re saying here is that nukes can load-follow just fine, but they can’t “wind-follow.” Well, why should they wind-follow?

    Your refs explain that nuclear has a hard time ramping up and down to compensate for hour-by-hour power surges and slumps that large amounts of wind would feed into the grid, and that nuclear’s performance declines when it tries to balance that chaotic variability. Your conclusion is that nuclear is “not much help” to wind and that we should therefore discard it.

    But isn’t that getting it backwards? Since it’s wind that’s imposing the chaotic variability on the grid, why don’t we just get rid of the wind and let nuclear get on with its reliable, dispatchable load-following? You’re arguing that nuclear is incompatible with “variable renewables,” but doesn’t it make more sense to say that chaotic renewables are incompatible with the rest of the grid?

    Because it’s not just nuclear—wind doesn’t play well with any element of the grid. If you balance wind with dispatchable gas or coal generators, their performance will also suffer. The stop-and-start operation will reduce their efficiency so they burn more fuel per kilowatt-hour, and the constant revving up and down will wear out their turbines.

    And that “demand-side management” you talk about simply means we shift the burden of coping with wind to customers by chaotically cutting back on their electricity. Businesses suddenly find their operations curtailed. People try to use an appliance, a computer, an air-conditioner, and find that they can’t because the smart grid has rationed their electricity—and they won’t get it back until the wind relents.

    Wind and solar destabilize the grid, degrade the efficiency and disrupt the functioning of the dispatchable generators that produce the bulk of the electricity, and impose serious inconvenience and costs on everyone who uses electricity. They shift us from a system that gives us power when we want it to one that puts us at the mercy of the weather. Why not just use nukes?

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  26. @ Dave Elliott, on China’s mighty renewables build.

    Thanks for that reference, lots of good data. The 2012 REN 21 report you cite lists China’s 2020 targets for wind as 200 GW onshore wind, 30 GW offshore wind, and at least 15 GW and probably a lot more solar.

    But totting up nameplate gigawatts gives a very misleading picture of actual energy production. (For example, your source says only 72 percent of current installed wind capacity is actually “operational,” p. 104). The right metric to use is not nameplate capacity but “average capacity”—the average amount of power that a unit of nameplate capacity produces over time. You get that by multiplying the nameplate capacity by the capacity factor.

    If we translate those nameplate capacities into average capacities, and compare with nuclear, we see that wind and solar don’t look great in terms of actual energy production, even with the huge buildout.

    Let’s do some numbers:

    Reported Chinese onshore wind CFs are 12-16%, but let’s say 20%. A realistic CF guesstimate for Chinese solar PV is maybe 15 %. Let’s give Chinese offshore wind a CF of 40 %. Chinese nuclear has a CF of about 88%. (http://www.world-nuclear.org/uploadedFiles/REPORT_OptimizCapacity.pdf)

    So 200 GW of onshore wind by 2020 counts as 40 GW of average capacity. The 30 GW of offshore wind counts as 12 GW average. Let’s guess that there will be 50 GW of solar in 2020, or 7.5 GW average capacity. So the whole 2020 wind and solar fleet of 280 GW nameplate capacity will have an average capacity of 59.5 GW.

    How about nuclear? The World Nuclear Association forecasts China will have 60-70 GW of nuclear by 2020. (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf63.html) Let’s say it’s 65 GW nameplate with an 88 percent CF which gives an average capacity of 57 GW, just a smidge less than wind and solar combined average capacity of 59.7 GW. Depending on which targets are exceeded or unmet, nuclear could be further behind or substantially ahead of wind and solar, but for now a good ballpark estimate is that in 2020 Chinese nuclear power will be roughly matching the electricity production of wind and solar combined.

    What about costs? Let’s overestimate the price of Chinese nuclear at $3000 per nameplate kilowatt and underestimate solar and onshore wind at $1000 per kilowatt, offshore wind at $2000 per kilowatt. Then the cost of building the nameplate 250 GW of onshore wind and solar and 30 GW of offshore wind would be $310 billion. The cost of building the nameplate 65 GW of nuclear would be just $195 billion.

    So by my estimate, with assumptions biased against nuclear, you have to pay about 50 percent more to build the same amount of average capacity from wind and solar as you do from nuclear, without counting the higher costs of integrating wind and solar into the grid, transmission, storage, backup, etc. Wind and solar have lower operations and maintenance costs, but that’s outweiged by the fact that nuclear plants last 2-3 times longer than wind and solar installations. Moreover, you’re paying more to get a much lower quality of electricity from wind and solar than you get from nuclear. The nuclear generators are reliable, flexible and dispatchable, while wind and solar generators are unreliable, rigid, chaotic, destabilizing to the grid and prone to common mode failure.

    In China, nuclear will offer a much better quality of power at a substantially cheaper price than wind and solar. Nuclear will only look better as costs decline with mass deployment. I’m betting that when these realities make themselves felt the Chinese will ramp up their nuclear build even more and sideline wind and solar. Time will tell.

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  27. Yes I think you are right- time will tell. I'm with the visionaries! But I'm not alone. Russia, China, India and S Korea may be pushing ahead with nuclear still, but, within Europe, since 2000, nuclear capacity fell by 14 GW, while 142 GW of renewable capacity was installed. Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland have now joined Austria, Ireland, Denmark, Portugal, Greece, Norway and others in the non/anti nuclear camp. All are pushing ahead with renewables instead.

    The UK and Finland face major problems in trying to get new nuclear established. E.ON and RWE have just pulled out of the 'Horizon UK programme. E.ON said 'We have come to the conclusion that investments in renewable energies, decentralised generation and energy efficiency are more attractive- both for us and for our British customers’. Finlands new EPR is now 5 year behind scheduled and nearly twice over budget. A proposed new project has now been postponed.

    In France, things have changed dramatically. The French Court of Auditors in its recent review said electricity from nuclear plants in France cost € 49.5 MWh, but put the cost from EPRs like Flamanville at € 70-90/MWh. That,although now very behind schedule, is to be competed, but, following the election, more new plants are very unlikely, just life extensions, and 24 old plants may be closed by 2025.

    Overall, the European Wind Energy Association says the average price of nuclear across Europe, taking into account the long build time, will be € 102 /MWh in 2020. But by then onshore wind prices will they claim drop to € 58/MWh and offshore wind will cost € 75 /MWh.
    http://blog.ewea.org/2012/02/french-nuclear-set-to-become-more-expensive-than-wind-power



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    1. In the USA,as I'm sure you know,the loan guarantees have not been too successful. In 2010 Constellation Energy, pulled out of the proposed Calvert Cliffs-3 EPR reactor project in Maryland.

      Following Fukushima, NRG Energy Inc. pulled out from investment in Units 3 and 4 of the project in South Texas. The company said: ‘The tragic nuclear incident in Japan has introduced multiple uncertainties around new nuclear development in the United States which have had the effect of dramatically reducing the probability that STP 3&4 can be successfully developed in a timely fashion’.

      Subsequently, Progress Energy put back its plans for two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors in Levy County, Florida, by three years, by which time they say the cost would be between $19-24 billion. They blamed the delay on ‘lower-than-anticipated customer demand, the lingering economic slowdown, uncertainty regarding potential carbon regulation and current low natural gas prices.’ Exelon has also halted work a proposed new nuclear plant in Victoria County, Texas, since falling gas prices would make it uneconomic.

      Earlier this year, the NRC did approve some new nuclear reactors including the Vogtle project in Georgia., although in May Nuclear Intelligence Weekly reported that the project was already up to $1bn over its $14bn budget.

      There’s also been a legal interruption- the NRC had to put a hold on nine construction and operating licenses, eight license renewals, one operating license, and one early site permit. This was in response to a US Court of Appeals ruling that the NRC had not provided sufficient guarantees that a final waste repository would be ready "when necessary", or indeed ever built at all. It further found that the NRC had failed "to properly examine the future dangers and key consequences" of storing fuel on nuclear sites for up to 60 years after licence expiration.

      In its provisional Annual Energy Outlook 2011, the US Department of Energy projected an increase in installed nuclear capacity of about 10 GW by 2035, about 10%, of which 6.3 GW would be new capacity (five reactors) and the rest coming from up-rating. However, given projected rises in demand and other supply options, it said the overall nuclear share would shrink from 20% to 17%.

      Last year a key milestone was passed, with US renewable electricity production being 18 % more than that from nuclear, led by biomass and biofuels (46% of total renewables), followed by hydro (37%), and wind (13.4%) www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly.

      A new report from the US National Renewable Energy Labs The Renewable Electricity Futures Study (RE Futures), looks at the extent to which renewables can meet US electricity demands, and found that the US renewable resource base was sufficient to support 80% renewable electricity generation by 2050, even in a higher demand growth scenario. It also looks at a 90% option, with 700GW of wind and PV.
      http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/re_futures/

      And finally Japan is looking at three options for nuclear: zero, 15% or 20-2%5 by 2030, with the zero option attracting overwhelmimg popular support. Unlike Germany, which already had a established nuclear phase out plan,and aims to get 80% from renewables 2050, they will find it hard to get to zero, but they are aiming for up to 35% from renewables by 2030.

      Obviously there is a big gap between GW plans and useful, balanced GWh reality, but the enthusiasm for the technical challenges is high amongst the renewable energy community, who at long last are seeing funding diverted from nuclear! In the field I have focused on recently, tidal current turbines, there is a burst of innovation underway, with hundreds of projects under test around the world. It's an exciting time to be in the energy game.

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    2. @ Dave Elliott on nuclear and renewables in the U. S and Japan.

      --Right, a lot of nuclear projects have been canceled in the US because high nuclear costs and low gas prices mean nuclear power will be undercut by cheap gas power in the near term. That’s important for the “merchant” power plant model, which must turn an immediate profit in deregulated U. S. electricity markets. Regulated utilities can undertake nuclear builds because they can plan for the long term, over which nuclear is the cheapest power around.

      --The alleged $1 billion cost overrun at the Vogtle build in Georgia may or may not be added to the cost of the Vogtle project, depending on legal wranglings between the utility, Southern Company, and the AP-1000 reactor designer, Westinghouse. The overrun was mainly due to delays in the certification of the AP-1000 design by the NRC—an example of how chaotic regulation drives up the cost of nuclear.

      Southern has also stated that overruns have been outweighed by savings in financing costs that are keeping the project under budget. They just told the Georgia PSC that their share of the budget might increase from $6.1 billion to $6.2 billion—but that’s still less than the $6.4 billion budget Georgia PSC approved in 2009. (http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gaBs_pqpXddbDaz4kzaefosqInQw?docId=427870ff6345459c84a7ab084d78927b)

      Never bet against a nuclear cost overrun, but so far Vogtle is on track.

      --Yes, a grand-standing court did rule that NRC had to do a study proving that onsite nuclear waste storage was safe. That’s because Senator Harry Reid forced the Obama Administration to abandon the Yucca Mountain waste depository, in violation of the law mandating it. And yes, that ruling does now throw a monkey-wrench into new licensing applications.

      This all shows how hysterical anti-nuclear politics and chaotic regulation hamstrings nuclear power. It shows absolutely nothing about the safety of nuclear waste storage. We’ve been storing nuclear waste safely onsite for 50 years now, with no serious accidents and no injuries or fatalites, so we know for an absolute fact that nuclear waste storage is safe.

      --Renewables are being built in the US only because they benefit from big subsidies and state renewable portfolio standards that legally require utilities to buy renewable power, no matter how expensive and uncompetitive it is.

      --It’s nice that NREL daydreams about decarbonizing 80-90 percent of the U. S. grid with renewables in the next 38 years. France did that in half the time using nuclear.

      --It’s nice that Japan daydreams about decarbonizing 80 percent of their grid with renewables by 2050. France did better than that in half the time using nuclear.

      Japan plans to do it with gargantuan subsidies. (http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/06/18/us-energy-renewables-japan-idINBRE85H00Z20120618) Wind will get a subsidy of about $0.30 per Kwh, solar about $0.53 per Kwh. These subsidies are 5 to 10 times the wholesale price of Japanese nuclear electricity, and they will stay in force for 20 years. France didn’t need anything like that subsidy to decarbonize its grid—it has some of the cheapest electricity in Europe.

      Meanwhile, Japan is adding hundreds of millions of tons of extra carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year by keeping their nukes shuttered.

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  28. @ Dave Elliott on the gargantuan wasted reserve capacity wind requires:

    Standby peaker plants currently comprise just a small fraction of the grid’s average power production. Your stats show that standby reserve capacity will have to be almost the entire average power production of the “primary” wind generators. So the inefficient standby capacity will be orders of magnitude larger under an all-renewables scenario than it is today.

    Think of it this way. Suppose we build enough wind that its average power production is equal to Britain’s average power consumption. Every year wind would generate as many electrons as Britain consumes. How much of the current fleet of dispatchable fossil and nuclear generators could we then shutter?

    The answer is—almost none of it! We would have to keep most of those dispatchable generators on line as “backup” for the days on end when wind is producing not its average 26 percent of nameplate, but 10 percent, 5 percent or even less. Those dispatchable power plants must stay on line, staffed and maintained, fueled up and indeed burning some fuel, as they do even in standby mode. And we have to maintain and staff the infrastructure of fossil fuel production and distribution they require.

    That’s the uselessness of wind. Even when you build a lot of it, you have to keep an entire extra electricity system, almost as large as the wind system itself, on standby waiting to step in during the frequent and lengthy periods when wind is simply not there.

    What a waste.

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  29. @Dave Elliott, on nuclear and renewables in Europe.

    OK, so we’ve established that nuclear will probably be a substantially better choice for China than wind and solar.

    Now you note that Europe is shutting down its nukes and ramping its renewables. Quite true. But that’s because of laws banning nuclear and a political refusal to license new reactors. Meanwhile renewable builds are mandated by law and lavishly subsidized. The decline in renewables is therefore mainly driven by political opposition fueled by anti-nuclear phobias, not by the intrinsic merits of nuclear power.

    Nuclear costs remain high, but if there were a mass deployment to develop economies of scale, as there has been for renewables thanks to legal mandates and subsidies, the costs of nuclear would also plummet.

    --The French Auditors Report that you cite gives considerably higher generation costs than other estimates. (p. 274) The difference comes from different assumptions about the “cost of capital”, i.e. interest rates, and also how much capital should be set aside for decommissioning and waste disposal, an estimate that is also highly dependent on interest rate projections. Other studies put the current generation costs as low as 33 euros per MWh.

    The French auditors put the cost of new nuclear at 70-90 euros per MWh. This is considerably lower than the costs of new nuclear, 96-98 pounds per Mwh, and new wind, 83-90 pounds per MWh, in the Mott McDonald report you cited earlier. Also, the 70-90 euros per MWh figure is for the “First of a Kind” Flamanville EPR, whose costs are inflated by teething pains. On page 226 the report states, “these costs are not the costs for a standard EPR, for which costs should be lower.” The report notes that the EPR units being built in Taishan, China, are proceeding without the delays and cost overruns that have plagued the Flamanville and Olkiluoto builds, as we would expect for future builds that benefit from lessons already learned. (p.224)

    The French Auditors report also calculates the capital cost of building France’s current reactor fleet at 1535 euros per kilowatt installed, in 2010 euros. (p. 266) This is considerably less than the current installed capital cost of wind power, for nuclear generators that produce 3 to 4 times as much electricity per kilowatt capacity as wind turbines do, and of a much higher quality.

    Again, a key point confirmed by the French auditors report is that if you build a lot of reactors, the costs go way down because of economies of scale and the learning curve.

    --The price projections you cite from the EWEA, a wind trade association, are sharply contradicted by the Mott McDonald report that you cited earlier. Mott McDonald put the 2020 price of offshore wind at 120-30 pounds per MWh, twice the EWEA projection of 75 euros per MWh. Which of the contradictory sources that you cited should we believe?

    --Despite the horrendous difficulties with the Olkiluoto 3 reactor, the Finns have decide to build another reactor there, Olkiluoto 4, as well as a new plant at Pyhajokki. That’s because they have no wind or solar resources and don’t want to be dependent on Russian gas. They put out a tender for a bid on Olkiluoto 4 last March (http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Bidding_starts_for_Olkiluoto_4-2603124.html), and accepted completed bids for Pyhajokki last February. (http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Bids_in_for_new_Finnish_plant-0102124.html) I wasn’t aware that either of these projects had been postponed—refs on that?

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  30. @ Dave Elliott, on U. S. biofuels:

    Dave, I was sorry to see you touting the increase in biomass and biofuels (mainly ethanol) in the U. S. They eat up land that could be devoted to wilderness or food production, and thus do immense harm to wildlife and to human beings.

    Ethanol production uses up 40 percent of the vast corn crop in the U. S. to provide 10 percent of U. S. auto fuel. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/10/drought-idUSL2E8JAFB920120810). That diversion significantly crowds out food production, thus driving up global food prices. The result is increased malnutrition, disease and death among poor people on a scale far worse than nuclear spews could ever cause.

    Biofuels are the craziest and cruelest of all renewables schemes.

    I wish Greens would take just an instant to consider the consequences of the foolish, destructive, inhumane policies they promote.

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    1. Actually I agree on ethanol in the USA- just a sop to the farm lobby, nothing to do with energy or climate. But then I'm a red not a green!

      But on wind etc I'm with the greens (and not with Willem Post!). Ive been working with others on a scenario for the UK for 2050 using the official and very clever DECC 2050 Pathway calculator, which surprisingly allows us to get to about 80% renewables without needing any standby capacity- assuming DSM, a bit of storage, V2G inputs and ocassional imports, while becoming a net exporter of green power. We have gone beyond that and used some the (excess wind) exports to make green gas, so then we can avoid the fossil fuel still used by the DECC system, to get to 100% renewables. The study should be out later this year.

      Delete
  31. This is fascinating: nuclear only prospers, it seems, under extreme conditions of individual and political obsession!

    http://www.neimagazine.com/story.asp?sectioncode=147&storyCode=2062988

    I wonder if that's also true of renewables? Or any major new technology?

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    1. No. Solar prospers no matter what. It's too attractive to be "grid-independent".

      Solar tech is progressing by leaps and bounds anyway. 80% efficient panels will be available in about 10 years (I have inside info).

      Delete
  32. Hey there all those talking about this,

    This is an apples and oranges scenario. There is no discussion in the article of the viability of nuclear in view of the waste that all the plants have generated, which is entirely full for what the NRC said was "safe " to store on site in interim storage,the disposal was not ever scientifically able to be approved ,because there is no scientific agreement on safe permanent ways or places to store it. On all the nuclear plants in the country there is still no scientific agreeemnt on a safe way to permanently dispose of a toxic waste that is toxic for 10,000 years according to the DOE who manages all the nuc 's in the U.S.The UN is against nuclear and all mega power, because it lacks autonomy for people, they can't fix them them selves they are pro biogas generators.

    The other omission is any comparison to the capacity for renewables which according to Amory; http://www.freakonomics.com/2009/02/09/does-a-big-economy-need-big-power-plants-a-guest-post/

    Renewables already globally out produce nuc's and leave no hazardous waste for 10,000 years unlike nuc's. To say nuclear is less bad then fossil fuels is like saying, at least there is no plutonium in sugar free pepsi.


    Really we need regional diverse smaller scale energy infrastructures; Here is our thinking on a holistic integrated permaculture approach to addressing the panoply of issues that must be simultaneously considered as we transition this toxic military industrial infrastructure to be healthy and well designed and truly by the people and for the people;

    Here's to considering many variables when we are strategizing viable and cogent solutions to complex multifaceted issues,

    http://www.facebook.com/andrewfaust?ref=tn_tnmn
    i.



    Andrew Faust
    Center For Bioregional Living
    www.homebiome.com

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    1. Andrew, thanks for your comment.

      --Anxieties about nuclear waste storage are quite wrong-headed. This material is very safe to store.

      --You write: “On all the nuclear plants in the country there is still no scientific agreement on a safe way to permanently dispose of a toxic waste that is toxic for 10,000 years.”

      It’s true that some scientists think waste storage is unsafe, just as some scientists think there’s no such thing as global warming. But we don’t need scientists to pronounce on this issue, because history proves beyond a doubt that the waste is safe to store. We’ve been storing spent nuclear fuel from civilian power plants in pools and dry casks for fifty years without a single serious accident. That empirical evidence trumps the scare scenarios: since we’ve been storing it safely for half a century, we know for a fact that nuclear waste is safe to store.

      But a scientific understanding of nuclear waste can indeed reassure us that long-term storage in deep geological repositories like Yucca Mountain would also be extraordinarily safe.

      People assume that the longer a radionuclide lasts the more dangerous is, but that’s totally backwards. It’s the short-lived radionuclides, mainly iodine 131 and radio-cesium, that are health risks because they are very radioactive and easily taken up by living tissues. But these isotopes decay away quickly; I-131 is entirely gone in 4 months, radio-cesium mainly gone in 50 years and entirely gone in 300 years.

      The longer-lived uranium, plutonium and trans-uranic isotopes in nuclear waste have half-lives of thousands of years—but that means that their radioactivity is very low and therefore not very dangerous. (Remember, half-life is inversely proportional to radioactivity; very radioactive isotopes decay away very quickly, while long-lived isotopes persist only because they are not very radioactive.) These radionuclides are also not readily taken up by organisms. And they are not volatile: intense heat does not melt and aerosolize them, so they do not disperse through the air the way radio-iodine and radio-cesium do. If we bury this material in deep mines under hundreds of meters of rock, there is no plausible way the public can suffer significant exposures from it.

      There are better things to do with spent nuclear fuel than bury it, like recycling it for fuel in breeder reactors. But there’s no doubt that storing it for periods short, long or geological is very safe.

      --“The UN is against nuclear and all mega power, because it lacks autonomy for people, they can’t fix them themselves they are pro biogas generators.”

      What do you mean? The United Nations has no official position for or against nuclear power or biogas or “mega power”. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which reports to the UN, has a mission of promoting and regulating nuclear power.

      Of course lay people can’t “fix” nuclear reactors themselves any more than they can fix their own cars or computers or wind turbines or broken bones. So what?

      --“Renewables already globally outproduce nukes and leave no hazardous wastes for 10,000 years unlike nucs.”

      That’s true only if you lump in hydro and traditional biomass—poor people burning firewood, which is disastrous both for them and the environment—with “renewables.” It’s not yet true of wind and solar, which in 2011 produced 5 percent of global electricity (http://www.map.ren21.net/GSR/GSR2012_low.pdf) , p. 23. while nuclear pre-Fukushima produced about 13 % of global electricity in 2009. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity_generation)

      Wind turbines and solar panels do indeed leave hazardous wastes—rare earths and heavy metals like cadmium and lead, which are dumped in landfills and not sequestered like nuclear waste. And unlike radio-toxicity that decays away over time, wind and solar waste is here until the end of time—way longer than 10,000 years.

      Delete
    2. @ Andrew Faust,

      --“The other omission is any comparison to the capacity for renewables which according to Amory [Lovins]…”

      The stupidity of Amory Lovins is too vast a continent to fully explore in this thread. See here for a debunking of his latest ideas on renewables. (http://bravenewclimate.com/2012/09/10/lovins-reinventing-fire-critique/)

      Briefly, your link to Lovins’s dazzling but misleading futurist patter conflates several different themes—micropower, conservation and renewables—all of which he garbles and distorts.

      First, there’s the notion of micropower trumping big centralized power plants. It’s important here to note that Lovins makes his living as a consultant selling micro-power systems—namely, gas-fired Combined Heat and Power systems for industry. He touts these for their “efficiency,” and they are indeed a slightly more efficient way to burn natural gas. Me, I’d rather generate power with carbon-free electricity from big centralized nuclear plants. In any case, you can build very small nuclear micro-power plants if you want. We already have those in nuclear-powered ships, and commercial models are ready to go if the NRC signs off.

      Lovins has spent a career exaggerating the gains to be had from conservation. Conservation isn’t the unalloyed good he claims: he sneers at air conditioning, but as I argued above, air conditioning is a literal life-saver during heat waves. Even if we could achieve his conservation targets in the West, the developing world needs to and will increase its power consumption many times over; the world will use more energy in the future not less.

      And no matter how much it conserves, the world will still need to generate power. Lovins’s brief for renewables (see the link above) makes the usual mistakes of not properly accounting for the feeble output and chaotic unreliability of wind and solar, or the need for redundant transmission and storage, or the need for wasteful and dirty fossil-fuel back-up, or the colossal environmental destruction from land-hungry solar, wind and biomass.

      --“Really we need regional diverse smaller-scale energy infrastructures.”

      No, as I argued above, renewable energy is absolutely the antithesis of small-is-beautiful localism. In a renewables grid all electricity is the product of the decentralized continent-wide grid, which is the polar opposite of locally-controlled or even regionally-controlled generation. There is no way that a region can subsist on its own wind and solar resources. Because depopulated prairies and deserts are the most productive areas for wind and solar, most of the electrons people use—all of them when it’s locally dark, cloudy or calm--would be coming from places hundreds and thousands of miles away. (However, the rationing of renewable electricity during times of weather-induced shortage would indeed require a very coercive central authority.)

      But yes, there would also have to be a massive redundant overbuild of renewables in every locale, even those with lousy wind and solar resources. Because the Great Plains and the desert Southwest sometimes run out of wind and solar, we would sometimes have to power the country off of Alabama wind and Michigan solar, which would require downright grotesque overbuilding in the most unpropitious of places. The waste, expense and environmental devastation would be staggering.

      So please let’s not kid ourselves that renewables infrastructure can in any way be regional or “small-scale.” Greens seem to think that building renewable generators is a neighborly village frolic, like a barn-raising or a quilting bee. In reality, wind turbines and solar farms and the grid that must link them are gigantic industrial installations created and run by the usual combine of multi-national corporations and megalithic government bureaucracies.

      Delete
    3. Everything you say is pretty much false. But it's too long-winded to refute in detail.

      Delete
  33. Perhaps you should visit the island of Samsoe off the coast of mainland Denmark, population 5000 or so.. That runs autonomously using 11 on land and offshore wind turbines backed up by biomass CHP and solar, all of which are owned and managed locally.

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    1. Dave, maybe you should visit Samsoe. Then visit the coal-fired power plant across the strait on the mainland where they get their electricity when the wind isn’t blowing.
      (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=samso-attempts-100-percent-renewable-power&page=3).

      Here’s what happened in Samsoe.

      The island of 4000 people (and many summertime tourists) used lavish government subsidies to build a lot of wind turbines. They also used government subsidies to build plants that burn locally grown straw and wood for district heat, install wood-burning stoves in their houses, and hang some solar panels. Now the wind turbines produce more electricity than the island uses (please let’s not talk about Danish solar), so Samso exports the excess via their underwater power cable, at subsidized prices.

      Does all this mean Samsoe can subsist in splendid green isolation on its own renewables? No, not by a long shot!

      Yes, Samsoe exports more clean electricity than it uses, but so does any patch of ground where you build a big wind farm. They export the excess into the larger Scandinavian grid, where it mainly offsets clean hydro, which acts as a convenient power storage reservoir. But during windless periods Samsoe then has to import electricity—produced by Norwegian hydro plants, Swedish nuclear plants and Danish coal plants.

      So Samsoe is still very much plugged into and reliant on a far-flung grid of dispatchable generators. Even when wind and solar produce sufficient “average” power (by arbitrary accounting contrivances), their chaotic intermittency means that they still cannot furnish reliable local power and must depend on dispatchable generators for back-up.

      Samsoe burns straw and wood for heat, but that supplies only 75 percent of their heating needs; the rest comes from imported heating oil and gas. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/30/world/europe/30samso.html) In any case, as I argued above, biomass and biofuels are not sustainable at any appreciable scale; by crowding out food production and wildlife habitat, they are a disaster for people and the environment and should not be used at all. Samsoe used to rely on fossil fuel-powered electric heating; had nuclear power plants been built to supply the electricity, they would have been a drastically cleaner and more sustainable source of heat than the biomass the island is burning now.

      Finally, let’s not forget Samsoe’s ongoing heavy use of imported oil for transportation.

      The Samsoe experiment demonstrates that, even in a rural area with a tiny population, no industry, modest power requirements and abundant natural and wind resources, renewables cannot support a self-sufficient local energy system. And the crucial biomass element of the Samsoe scheme would be disastrous if scaled up and should be rejected by every responsible environmentalist.

      Properly accounted, Samsoe’s renewable power is not self-sufficient, not sustainable, and definitely not green.

      P. S. Okay, let’s talk about Danish solar: “The retired school principal, Christian Hovmand, has installed 16 solar panels on his roof, inspired by a solar-powered pocket calculator he once received. ‘If he is consuming more than he is producing, he runs around unplugging things while his poor wife is sitting in the dark,’ Hermansen says. ‘It’s like a game for him.’” (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=samso-attempts-100-percent-renewable-power&page=3)

      Delete
  34. I spent a week on Ssmsoe making a film for the BBC about it. As you admit it produces more electricity net than it uses (actually enough they claim to offset the fuel used in vehicles) and 'only' 75% of its heat comes from biomass, of which there is plenty- it's a farming community generating a lot of form waste. Some tractors are run on biodiesel that they make themselves. Many houses also have solar heating. There is a factory making solar collectors- I went round it. Some people also have roof top PV. It's a very happy place.

    Yes they did have to import the wind turbines and PV modules and got grants to pay for some of that cost, and yes they have a grid link for balancing. But then I don't 100% think self sufficiency is a useful aim, even in rural areas- they ought to supply areas where there is less room for wind farms. There is certainly plenty more room on Samsoe.

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    1. @ Dave Elliott, on Samsoe Islands dependency on energy imports:

      --OK, we’ve established that Samsoe’s energy supply is not self-sufficient or “autonomous:” the island regularly imports large amounts of energy to cope with its heating, electricity and transport needs. So let’s drop the canard that renewables allow local areas to subsist off their own resources.

      --Much of the electricity that Samsoe “produces” isn’t actually produced on the island, but from offshore wind turbines that are just near the island (while also being near the mainland.) This electricity is not ear-marked for Samsoe’s exclusive use; it simply feeds into the whole grid. The notion that these generators, which are just nodes on a vast Scandinavian grid, “belong” to Samsoe is a meaningless accounting gimmick. Some Samsoe-ites paid for some of the costs of the offshore turbines, but they were also financed by government grants and supported by subsidized prices that represent a further transfer payment from the government. The electricity they produce really belongs to Denmark and the larger grid, not to Samsoe. To call this electricity a local resource is equivalent to saying that when Wall Street investors finance a power plant in Pennsylvania that makes New York City self-sufficient in electricity production.

      --Is Samsoe scalable? How much more wood and straw and oil crops can Samsoe grow and burn before the land is deforested and the soils depleted? Should we really devote land to energy production that could instead be used for food crops and wildlife habitat? You agreed upthread that bio-mass and biofuels are undesirable and unsustainable, but here you are touting them again. I wish Greens could be consistent, or at least acknowledge their contradictions.

      --What if instead of more wind turbines and solar panels Samsoe hosted a 3 gigawatt nuclear power plant? That would only require a few dozen acres of built-up ground, so there’s lots of room for it. Samsoe still wouldn’t be self-sufficient, because a nuke is also just a production node on a grid and it goes off-line occasionally for refueling and maintenance. But Samsoe would produce and export hundreds of times more clean energy than it does now, from a per-kilowatt footprint drastically smaller than its wind and biomass and biodiesel production take up. In fact, that nuclear electricity would be so abundant and reliable that the grid managers could shut down the coal-fired plant across the strait from Samsoe. That would make Samsoe a significant part of the fight against global warming, rather than just another renewables Potemkin village.

      Delete
  35. 1) Coal is enemy #1. It disappoints me to see backers of low-carbon energy alternatives fighting each other instead of coal.

    2) South Korea and China have a proven ability to deploy new nuclear at reasonable costs. The proof of this ability in Western Europe and North America is still waiting. Affordable, large-scale French deployment is admirable but not a very good indication that it can be done again and on a larger scale.

    3) Nuclear energy is really abundant only with oceanic uranium recovery or breeders. Breeders increase complexity and cost considerably over once-through fuel cycles. If you look at breeders as a class, the historical capacity factor is worse than offshore wind, mostly due to long and unplanned shutdowns (like Monju following the sodium fire).

    4) Oceanic uranium recovery is promising, but needs production-scale implementation to prove itself. Many a technology has suffered cost blowups between the prototype and the IPO.

    5) Nuclear waste should be presumed hazardous pretty much "forever". Forget transuranics, just look at the US groundwater standards for Tc-99. These standards were established in the early 1960s, well before you can point to any sort of environmental anti-nuke hysteria. Breeders and reprocessing do nothing to reduce the technetium footprint of fission power.

    6) Maintaining permanent stewardship over spent nuclear fuel in e.g. above-ground dry cask storage appears to be a reasonable and affordable approach to nuclear waste management. The 10000 year unmaintained geological repository is both expensive up front and inadequate over the long term, if you take Tc-99 standards seriously. In the space taken by a single coal ash impoundment you could fit a century of storage for dozens of light water reactors. Each waste cask only reasonably needs to survive a few centuries between maintenance ops. If there's a period of thousands of years during which civilization collapses to a level where people can't recognize radioactive waste or do 19th century metallurgy, the increased mortality rate from waste release pales in comparison to the new background rate.

    7) Wind and solar already appear to be putting the hurt on coal generators in higher-penetration areas by the merit order effect. Coal generators can be economically pressured with only a few % of total generation, as long as those megawatt hours depress peak pricing (most relevant for solar). This is almost a stealth carbon tax, insofar as it makes coal less competitive.

    8) Solar doesn't require despoiling vast areas of wilderness. NREL estimates that 800 terawatt hours can be produced annually in the US from rooftop PV with 13.5% efficient modules; this is about equal to the current amount of electricity produced from the US nuclear fleet. If you used Sunpower modules at 20% instead, and kept everything else constant, you could boost that to 1185 terawatt hours, more than US nuclear and hydroelectric output combined. That's with modules based on ridiculously abundant silicon: no dependence on indium, tellurium, rare earths, or despoiled desert landscapes.

    9) Wind and solar technology can iterate and improve much faster than nuclear because the consequences for failure are comparatively trivial and the units are much smaller. Maybe on a libertarian "level playing field" where nuclear reactors were no more regulated than solar panels, nuclear could iterate and improve as fast. Probably not, because a solar company can start with only a few megawatts of manufacturing capacity. Even a "huge" wind turbine is maybe 6 megawatts, and a "huge" solar module is 0.07 megawatts. Compare and contrast with nuclear reactors, where the cutting edge of the small and modular concept imagines 20 megawatt units. You might need $50 million to launch a new solar technology to pilot manufacturing; good luck launching a new reactor with 10 times as much.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Matt.

      --On nukes and nations:

      1)“South Korea and China have a proven ability to deploy new nuclear at reasonable costs. The proof of this ability in Western Europe and North America is still waiting…French deployment is admirable but not a very good indication that it can be done again and on a larger scale.”

      You don’t explain why South Korea and China can build cheap nukes but the West can’t, or why France could build cheap nukes back then but not now. You’ve also left out some pertinent examples. For example the U. S. built over a hundred cheap nukes in the 1960s through the 1990s. Japan built as many cheap nukes as France, and built several in the last decade at $2-3000 per kilowatt, as cheaply as Korea.

      There’s nothing special about Korea or China—cheap, massive nuclear builds are the rule, not the exception. It’s all a question of policy, not national character. When governments authorize mass deployment and remove legal and regulatory obstacles, big nuclear fleets are built quickly and cheaply.

      --On peak uranium:

      Sea-water extraction and breeders are not the only sources of new uranium. There simply hasn’t been much prospecting—in deep deposits or sea-floor deposits, or underexplored areas—because uranium is cheap. Even so, uranium reserves have grown by 20 percent over the last decade, and doubled since 1975, despite growing consumption. ((http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf75.html). Progress is also being made on new ways to mine low-grade ores more cheaply.

      Forecasts of peak minerals almost always turn out to be wrong. People have been saying we’re about to run out of oil for a hundred years. We’ll almost certainly find lots more uranium just by looking for it.

      The extremely long shut-downs of fast reactors like Monju in Japan and Superphenix in France are at least as much the result of political opposition as technical problems. In 1982 Greens went so far as to fire rocket-propelled grenades at Superphenix.

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    2. @ Matt, on nuclear waste:

      I agree that it makes more sense to put nuclear waste in dry casks than in deep geological repositories. Dry cask storage is extremely safe, and it keeps the waste handy to fuel fast breeder reactors. But you’re wrong to suggest that deep geological repositories are unsafe.

      Statements like “Nuclear waste should be presumed hazardous pretty much forever” are meaningless. Substances are hazardous only to the extent that people are likely to get a toxic dose.

      Take your example of technetium-99, which is less than one tenth of one percent of nuclear waste. People worry about it because it has a half-life of 210,000 years and it tends to be soluble in water. The concern is that it will leach out of geological waste depositories like Yucca Mountain, which sits above an aquifer.

      Is Tc-99 hazardous forever? You could argue that. But lots of things that we blithely splash about in are hazardous forever—like seawater. Drink just a few gallons from the ocean and you could die—and a lot quicker than you’ll die from drinking a few gallons of Tc-99-tainted groundwater. That doesn’t make every beach a toxic killing field.

      So even if a toxin is all about us in colossal quantities, it’s not a hazard unless there’s some serious risk that we’ll be exposed to a toxic dose. And just as people aren’t very likely to guzzle seawater, they aren’t very likely to be exposed to nuclear waste sitting in a mineshaft under hundreds of yards of solid rock at Yucca. That waste is likely very safe for 10,000 years and longer, because when you bury things under hundreds of yards of rock, they tend to stay put for a very long time.

      If DOE gets it wrong and some Tc-99 does leach into the aquifer under Yucca—well, so what? It’s in an empty desert in the middle of nowhere. It’s not the end of the world if that aquifer gets a little more tainted with toxic minerals than it naturally is, because there’s still no way for the public to get a significant exposure from that—unless they insist on guzzling gallons of untreated groundwater from the aquifer every day for decades on end. Why, or even how, would they do that? In the extremely unlikely even that contamination were to occur, drill a few monitoring wells, put up some signs—it’s a problem that any county board of supervisors can handle.

      A little common sense shows that the alarm over nuclear waste is overblown.

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    3. @ Matt, on wind and solar bankrupting coal:

      “Wind and solar already appear to be putting the hurt on coal generators in higher-penetration areas by the merit order effect.”

      Not really. It only looks that way because wind and solar are heavily subsidized and given legally guaranteed markets.

      Unsubsidized wind and solar can sometimes be cheaper than peaking fossil-fueled electricity (usually gas generators, not coal.) But that’s not true most of the time. Their marginal operating costs per kilowatt-hour are low, but their amortized capital costs are very high; if they had to match the cheap price of baseload coal they wouldn’t be able to pay their mortgages and they would go bankrupt. The only periods when unsubsidized wind and solar can actually make profitable sales are during extreme peak demand, and that’s just not enough kilowatt-hours for them to subsist on—especially because it’s a roll of the dice whether they will even be generating during peak hours.

      Wind and solar thrive, though, because 1) they get subsidies that make up the difference between the fossil-fuel price and their total costs, including capital costs; and 2) utilities are required by law to buy, at high fixed prices, all the electricity that wind and solar generators produce, even if it’s more expensive than competing fossil-fueled power.

      With these subsidies and market guarantees wind and solar can indeed grab sales from fossil-fired plants, enough to actually push the latter into bankruptcy. Great, right? Well, maybe not. The problem is that even when the coal and gas plants go bankrupt, we can’t get rid of them because they are still needed as dispatchable“backup” when wind and solar are producing next to nothing, as they often are. And to keep those fossil plants in business, they have to be given their own subsidies. These are called “capacity markets”: the government or utility pays coal and gas plants to sit there idling, ready to jump in with generating capacity when wind and solar cut out. Germany is now establishing capacity markets to support their disapatchable fossil generators against the big renewables surge.

      What’s worse, even when those fossil plants aren’t generating electricity, they still emit lots of CO2. When backing up wind and solar they operate as “spinning reserve,” burning fuel and spinning their turbines so they can instantly ramp up when renewables stall.

      In a wind and solar grid, even the fossil generators are subsidized—and subsidized specifically to continue emitting greenhouse gases when they aren’t making electricity. There’s a lot of waste, irrationality and carbon in that system compared to a nuclear grid.

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    4. @ Matt, on rooftop solar:

      --Okay, you say we don’t need to despoil the countryside with solar farms because rooftop PV will generate as much electricity as nuclear does now. But nuclear currently produces about 20 percent of our electricity, and less than 10 percent of primary energy, so rooftop PV wouldn’t come close to decarbonizing our energy supply. What will we do for the rest? Well, among other things the NREL study you cite recommends building vast rural solar farms and growing biomass, both of which will definitely despoil the countryside. Rooftop PV can’t save the land.

      Anyway, vast projections of how much solar energy is “out there” are meaningless; what counts is the cost and feasibility of harvesting it.

      The NREL study calculated 664 gigawatts of rooftop solar PV. Assuming it can be built, how much would it cost? Well, the cheapest solar module prices are running at about $1 per watt, which is 35-40 percent of installed prices of about $2.50 per watt. (http://www.solarbuzz.com/facts-and-figures/retail-price-environment/module-prices)

      So those 664 gw of rooftop PV will cost $1.66 trillion. That would buy you 276 gw of nuclear power, at a cost of $6 billion per gw. With capacity factors of 90 percent, those nukes would generate 2,183 terrawatt-hours of electricity, or 2.7 times as much electricity as the 818 twh generated by rooftop PV. So you get several times more clean energy for the buck by investing in nuclear instead of rooftop PV.

      What about the magic Sunpower modules? I couldn’t find a manufacturer’s retail, but this source indicates an installed cost of $33,000 for a 9 kw home system in San Diego, or, $3. 67 per kw. (http://www.solarpaneltalk.com/showthread.php?7028-Sunpower-system-in-San-Diego-Good-deal) Another source say 11,000 pounds in Britain for a 4 kw home system, or about $4.40 per kw. (http://www.pvpanelguide.co.uk/guides/sunpower-pv-solar-panels/). (Accounting for government subsidies would add considerably to these prices.) Thus Sunpower module are 50 percent more efficient than NREL’s bargain-basement PV, but also 50 percent more expensive at the lower San Diego price—so nuclear has the same cost advantage over Sunpower modules.

      And that’s not counting the additional costs of rooftop PV—the redundant transmission overbuild, the batteries and dispatchable power plants to back up solar, the fact that solar wears out in 30 years while nukes last for 60. Mass deployment would drive nuclear costs way down, adding to their cost advantage. And nukes have a land footprint that’s 100 times smaller per kilowatt than solar farms, so you can keep right on building them without despoiling the countryside.

      We should think hard before we resort to rooftop PV.

      --On solar waste.

      Matt, even polycrystalline PV like Sunpower often uses lead, silver and aluminum in the circuitry, and lead-acid batteries for backup. They are not devoid of toxins.

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    5. @ Matt, on solar innovating faster than nuclear:

      --“[for wind and solar] the consequences for failure are comparatively trivial”

      Not sure what you mean there.

      Nuclear really can go a lot faster if some senseless regulatory inertia is cleared away.There are plenty of innovative, even revolutionary, designs that have been tested and are ready to develop. But even conventional designs take forever to get approval—the AP1000 light water reactor was vetted for over 6 years before the NRC certified it. There’s no good reason for that kind of foot-dragging.

      At any rate, solar and wind are advancing through incremental improvement, not revolutionary innovation. The big news in wind power over the last decade was making the turbine bigger. The breakthrough in solar was mass production in subsidized Chinese factories that drove down PV costs. Nuclear can also advance dramatically through incremental improvement and mass deployment—if anti-nuclear alarmism doesn’t hobble it.

      --“Coal is enemy # 1. It disappoints me to see backers of low-carbon energy alternatives fighting each other instead of coal.”

      Amen to that! I hope you’ll spread the word to the renewables backers who are trying to ban nuclear power.

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    6. Hi Will,

      8 years ago I was really excited about the coming Nuclear Renaissance and thought that solar was doomed to be a niche option, basically suited only to scientific experiments and off-grid homes for wealthy people who wanted green cred.

      Since then I have become more skeptical about the ability of the western nuclear industry to deliver new installations on time and at reasonable cost -- even in cases where they're not fighting obstructionist lawsuits. The two European Pressurized Reactor deployments in particular are disappointments to me in terms of schedule and cost overruns. The costs at Vogtle have also ballooned in the few years since the proposal was first made. New solar and wind installations are numerous and there's plenty of planning experience to guide the next iteration. Smaller diversified projects have lower systemic risks and any one project failure isn't a financial catastrophe.

      Wind power is competitive with nuclear in some areas even if you take government subsidies into account. Austin, Texas signed 20-year fixed price contracts with wind power providers in the past year for less than $40 per megawatt hour. Even if you add in the Production Tax Credit the real cost is less than $62 per megawatt hour, still cheaper than western new build nuclear.

      Grid connected solar isn't yet competitive with nuclear anywhere, as far as I know. My contingent enthusiasm is based on projecting that solar balance of system and soft costs (and, to a lesser extent, module costs) are going to come down further. And that nuclear capital costs are going to be flat or even increase in the medium term. If solar LCOE were frozen at 2012 levels forever I'd not bother. But solar has made much more progress on cost and production volume over the past decade than nuclear has, and I expect crossover in sunny areas within another decade on a LCOE spot market basis; I'll admit that pricing intermittency isn't so straightforward.

      Look at me -- ignoring my own advice to just focus on killing coal! I don't have safety objections to nuclear. I live near a Gen II reactor and I'm happy with it; it's a much better neighbor than a coal plant. The OP is completely correct: the coal fleet is far more dangerous operating as designed than the occasional catastrophic failure in the nuclear fleet. And a single European Pressurized Reactor (once it is FINALLY RUNNING) should annually generate more low-carbon electricity than all currently installed French and Spanish PV panels combined.

      I'd be very excited if the nuclear industry had the same public buy-in that new renewables do. And if it had that backing it's quite possible that experience and repetition would bring new plant costs down. Right now it seems like a chicken-and-egg problem unlikely to be resolved in nuclear's favor, at least in Western Europe or North America. I also disagree that easing regulation is a good way to move nuclear power forward. I think that North American nuclear power has a great safety record precisely because it is carefully regulated. I would prefer to ratchet up safety requirements on fossil fuel polluters. The down side is that nuclear can't change quickly compared to renewables; almost nobody would start a new solar company if every module design had to undergo something like NRC review.

      My greatest nuclear hope is the Small Modular Reactor concept, standardized and factory built for predictable and affordable nuclear energy, but again I first read about these reactors in 2002 and to date there's not a single deployment. It starts to feel like waiting for Godot expecting the Nuclear Renaissance to materialize off of paper. If nuclear energy gets to the point where it's clearly cheaper than coal, hamstrung only by obstructionist lawsuits and public opinion in the West, I could picture e.g. Russia, China, or Jamaica installing a bunch of reactors and exporting energy-intensive products like ammonia, aluminum, and synthetic liquid fuels instead of electricity or the reactors themselves.

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    7. @ Matt:

      $62 per mwh is cheap for wind. (Do you have a link to that price data?)

      But remember that the cost of generation is just the beginning of wind costs. Transmission costs are very high because you have to pipe the electricity long distances from prairies to population centers. Texas is now spending $6.9 billion to build 18.4 gigawatts worth of HV transmission lines for wind farms. That’s about $375 per nameplate gw, about 18 percent of the capital cost of a wind kilowatt, which will be charged to general ratepayers, not to the generators. Texas turbines have 35 percent capacity factors, so the transmission cost per average kilowatt is about $1000. And that’s for transmission lines witithin Texas; a national grid will require Texas wind power to be shipped 1500 miles to New England over $ 2 million per mile HV lines. Nukes can be located close to the load and have 90 percent capacity factors, so their transmission costs are drastically lower per kilowatt-hour.

      There are other huge costs of wind that are absorbed by the grid, like fossil fuel backup and storage. The costs of integrating unreliable wind into the grid will only rise with penetrations, and will probably put a low ceiling on that penetration that will greatly curtail wind’s contribution to decarbonizing the grid.

      And then you have to consider the greater longevity of the nuclear plant. After the mortgage is paid off in 20 years, the nuke will be generating electricity at a cost of 2-3 cents per kwh for another 40 years. Nuclear is the smart long play, but deregulated energy markets in Texas can’t see that—generators have to make profits right away (unless they get subsidies and set-asides, like wind does.)

      --The alleged $1 billion cost overrun at the Vogtle build in Georgia may or may not be added to the cost of the Vogtle project, depending on legal wranglings between the utility, Southern Company, and the AP-1000 reactor designer, Westinghouse. The overrun was mainly due to delays in the certification of the AP-1000 design by the NRC—an example of how chaotic regulation drives up the cost of nuclear.

      Southern has also stated that overruns have been outweighed by savings in financing costs that are keeping the project under budget. They just told the Georgia PSC that their share of the budget might increase from $6.1 billion to $6.2 billion—but that’s still less than the $6.4 billion budget Georgia PSC approved in 2009. (http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gaBs_pqpXddbDaz4kzaefosqInQw?docId=427870ff6345459c84a7ab084d78927b)

      Never bet against a nuclear cost overrun, but so far Vogtle is on track.

      --OK, we’ve agreed that nuclear is safe. I would argue that that’s not just because of the regulatory regimen, but because nuclear is “intrinsically safe.” As my OP demonstrated, even when it melts down and explodes, as at Fukushima, the public health effects are trivial--too small to measure, even without evacuations. Radiation is simply not dangerous at the levels emitted in nuclear accidents.

      --Your focus has been on costs, Matt, which is where the debate should be. But I think I’ve shown that even current Western nuclear is much cheaper than solar and marginally to substantially cheaper than wind. With mass deployments, nuclear costs and build-times will plummet, allowing nukes to decarbonize the grid far faster and more comprehensively than renewables (as they have shown they can do in France).

      Nuclear isn’t popoular right now—but that can change if pro-nuclear greens step up and challenge the alarmist conventional wisdom.

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    8. Here's the Austin wind news I was thinking of: http://www.naylornetwork.com/app-ppw/articles/index-v2.asp?aid=154452&issueID=23295

      Brazil is getting long term contracts at auction for multi-gigawatt installations of wind power under $63 per megawatt hour: http://oilprice.com/Alternative-Energy/Wind-Power/Brazil-to-Invest-Heavily-in-Wind-Power.html

      I have also seen articles in the past year about wind in the Midwest in the $30-$40 per megawatt hour range (more like $52-$62 with Production Tax Credit figured in).

      The EIA estimates an additional $3.70 per megawatt hour in transmission costs for onshore wind. I don't know if that is too low, but it would have to be low by a few hundred percent to shift the overall cost of wind much.

      "With mass deployments" of nuclear is the very chicken and egg problem that I think renewables sidestep nicely, despite technical weaknesses. Do you want to start a new wind farm? It could start as small as a couple of megawatts, under $3 million and 12 months going from initial permit filing to first grid-delivered MWh. Like solar? You can have a rooftop system for under $10000 in a few weeks. By way of contrast, try to find anyone with $5 billion in capital to build a Gen III reactor, and the patience to wait at least 5 years before you get any revenue, even if it's a better investment with a 40 year planning horizon. You can break a large solar or wind development up into several smaller phases with separate deadlines and investors. If the project stretches over a few years the later phases can even use better panels or turbines than were available when the first phase started construction. By contrast Flamanville 3 is able to produce zero megawatts until the day it's ready to produce 1630 megawatts.

      For the same reason I think that giant tokamak fusion units are a dead end for commercial power generation, even if ITER proves wildly successful. Requiring investors to commit to a gigawatt or more of capacity in a single chunk, and in projects with long lead times, means ballooning financing costs and many fewer investors able and willing to take on such projects. As mentioned previously, I've been hoping for small modular reactors to bypass this financing problem for nuclear, but even the smallest SMRs I've seen detailed are still pretty large financial commitments compared to the median new wind or solar farm.

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    9. @ Matt,

      It’s not true that wind is self-starting, such that any group of investors can just throw up a wind-farm and start making money.

      Without the massive grid investments the wind farms can’t get their electricity to market. That’s precisely why Texas is spending $6.9 billion on those power lines—without them, they won’t be able to build more wind farms in West Texas or the Panhandle. Those investments are paid by general rate payers, not the wind farm investors. They also require years of political battles, eminent domain, etc.

      Those grid extensions are crucial to wind investments. Offshore wind farms in Germany aren’t generating any power because there are no power lines; to get the energy companies to invest in them, the German government has to provide financial guarantees against the risk of their not being able to pipe the electricity to market. In China only 72 percent of the wind farms are hooked up to the grid, because they haven’t run power lines out to the steppes.

      And if the investors can get the wind power to market over the subsidized grid, they need further subsidies to sell it. If on the day you open your wind farm the coal plant down the road is selling its power for one penny per kilowatt less than the price you need to pay your mortgage, then your wind farm goes bankrupt. So without that production tax credit, or the even more lucrative investment tax credit, investment in wind farms would dry up. Markets build gas and coal plants, not wind farms.

      So the chicken-and-egg problem you refer to also applies to renewables, and it is overcome the traditional way—with government subsidies and preferments that drive the investments. Indeed, power generation, a natural monopoly, has always been structured by state planning that shielded it from short-term market demands by putting it in the hands of regulated utilities that could take the long view. It’s only with the American fad for deregulated electricity markets, as in Texas, that short-term market imperatives have dominated power investments. But that kind of neoliberal model is very bad for an energy system—renewables haven’t had to conform to it, and neither should nuclear.

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    10. 80% efficient solar modules will be available within about 10 years, I know the people with the designs. It's not as hard as it appears.

      More interestingly, batteries with roughly 100 times the energy density of existing batteries will also be available (same tech).

      Forget nuclear; it's a dead end tech.

      As for grid variability? It can be stabilized. Same tech, actually.... it's all about optimization.

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  36. Large wind/solar farms certainly need large transmission investments. Small farms tend to get built near existing substations and don't need to build long interconnects. Again, the EIA estimates onshore wind transmission costs of $3.70 per megawatt hour, compared to $1.10 per megawatt hour for advanced nuclear or $1.20 for coal. More than 3 times as much! But in absolute terms, an extra $2.60 per megawatt hour doesn't make much difference.

    On a technical basis it seems like nuclear energy should be competitive with fossil fuels even without CO2 reduction targets and a real champion with CO2 reduction targets factored in. I have spent a long time trying to figure out why it hasn't played out that way. Public fear and opposition, disproportionate to the statistical risks, is one prominent reason. But the story doesn't end there.

    Nuclear cost overruns and construction delays were a common problem in the US even before Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima entered the public consciousness. Gen III reactors tend to larger sizes, ostensibly to reach lower amortized costs per megawatt, but with such large units I'm afraid they will not build enough to re-accumulate even the institutional experience acquired during the first wave of Gen II construction.

    Also, even though from an engineering design perspective bigger may be more economical ("we use half as much of these expensive alloys with one large pressure vessel instead of 3 smaller ones!"), large projects also seem to have worse problems with schedule and cost uncertainty. Look at big military procurement programs, Boston's Big Dig, or the Pearl GTL facility in Qatar for other prominent examples of projects that started with big costs and bloated up to staggering costs. Pretty much only the semiconductor fab industry maintains a good track record of building high-tech multi-billion-dollar facilities while staying within budget and schedule. Perhaps that's because they've been at it more or less continuously, not trying to do projects once every 20 years.

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    1. Three Mile Island was really the the key. A lot of projects were halted in mid-build for a hugely expensive redesign after that. The inflation of the late 1970s early 1980s at the same time also ballooned the costs. Anti-nuke lawsuits had an impact. A plethora of designs and then redesigns to keep up with changing regulatory goal-posts meant that the industry never built up much experience with any particular design.
      The way to do it is the old French way—select a single family of designs, use government financing at low interest rates, put out a build plan so the contractors can plan rationally and build up experience, crank them out. The French built their reactor fleet—gigawatt-scale heavyweights--at a cost of $1535 per kilowatt in 2010 dollars, cheaper than up-to-date wind kilowatts. ((http://www.ccomptes.fr/content/download/43447/694946/version/1/file/Costs_nuclear_power_sector_summary.pdf)
      The Chinese and Koreans are gearing up to match those costs with Gen III designs.

      Any country can do it with systematic policies.

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    2. Sorry, that should be 1535 euros per kilowatt!

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    3. there are people who study estimates for big projects.
      This is discussed in Kahnemans book thinking fast and slow.
      estimates almost always super low ball.
      I also ran across an example in a paper by economists on mega sporting events; they recount how tourism officials in denver predicted 100,000 visitors for an NBA all start game, even tho the stadium had 20,000 seats and denver had 6,000 hotel rooms...

      I don't know if people know this, but cost overruns on the big dig in boston are killing us here in the state of MA (the fed gov't normally covers 90% or more of these projects, but they dind't cover all the overruns, leaving MA with hideous bond bills)
      the impression i had reading the boston globe is tht this occured because the republican governor prior to Romney dismantled the state agency responsible for oversight and management of the project, and outsourced it to a private company.

      when i came to boston, from ny, i was astonished to see that the boston power structure thought the big dig a good idea; it bankrupted the state so that rich people in Boston and Weston could get to the airport more easily.
      if boston had put that money into public transit, boston would be the showcase city of the 21st century.

      Delete
  37. why would you work on nuclear, when solar and wind don't produce huge amounts of high level, long lived alpha waste ?

    Why would you work on nuclear, since the technology is fungible with weapons work, and therefore helps with the spread of weapons (a lot of people don't get this which i first heard from grace paley at a demo on long island in teh 1980s...for instance, the technological infrastructure and training needed to safely move radioactive material is a complex thing; having a civilian program lets you develp that technolgy)

    to a certain extent, nuclear is atest of higher level thinking; if you are pro nuke, you fail, because wind and solar have to have fewer extreme [black swan] bad consequences.

    it is also amusing that in this area of thougth, it is the wacko environmentalist liberals who are the optimists, thinking that new technology can help..I have no doubt that an Apollo level program could solve the issue of storge for solar wind

    I really think nuclear, and in particular fusion, is just welfare for scientist; many years ago, one of the nations most promienent engineers ahd an editorial in Science magazine (AAAS, washington dc)
    he pointed out that basic engineering aspects of fusion (heat transfer from super hot plasma) were...unworkable

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    1. sorry, above kinda rude, but one more thing
      I think there is a certain macho mentality in pronuclear writing.
      somehow, solar wind is soft and squishy and not what real men do in conquering the natural world; but maybe i'm off base with that to.

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    2. Thanks for your comments, Soccer Dad.

      --“Why would you work on nuclear, when solar and wind don’t produce huge amounts of high-level, long-lived alpha waste?”

      --It’s not true that wind and solar don’t produce toxic wastes. They contain toxic rare-earths and heavy metals like lead. Unlike nuclear waste, solar and wind waste is dumped in landfills instead of being carefully sequestered, and it lasts forever instead of diminishing steadily through radioactive decay.

      --The amount of waste produced by the nuclear industry is actually quite tiny. During the 50 years of civilian nuclear power in the United States, a total of about 80,000 tons of waste has been generated—it would all fit in a single Walmart Super Center. By contrast, just one coal-fired power plant produces millions of tons of waste every year. That includes several tons of radioactive waste—uranium and thorium, radon and thoron gasses—that either goes up the smokestacks and into our lungs or is dumped in ash heaps open to the elements, where it leaches into water supplies. Switching from coal to nuclear would greatly reduce the amount of radioactive waste spewed into the environment.

      Nuclear waste isn’t even waste, since most of it can be used to fuel fast-breeder reactors.

      We know the waste is safe to store, because we’ve been storing it for 50 years in pools and then dry-cask storage with no significant accidents or any loss of life. Long-term deep geological repositories, which bury the waste under hundreds of meters of rock in the middle of depopulated deserts, are also extraordinarily safe.

      --In fact, the nuclear fuel cycle, ending in deep geological repositories, is arguably a process of environmental remediation. Its net effect is to make naturally-occuring radioactive material less dangerous to humans and the environment than it would normally be.

      People think that reactors create radioactive material where there was none before. That’s not really true; what they do is concentrate naturally-occurring radioactive material and speed up its decay.

      It’s true that short-term nuclear waste contains novel, very radioactive isotopes. But that stuff is gone in a century or two.

      Long-term nuclear waste, the stuff that allegedly lasts for thousands of years, is over 99 percent uranium—the same stuff that we originally dug out of the ground. Before we mined it, it was out there in the environment, leaching into streams and groundwater, getting into the dust that people breathe and swallow, taken up by plants, generating radon gas that we inhale. If we didn’t mine it, that uranium would continue causing those exposures for millennia. But if we mine it, use it and then dump it as “nuclear waste” at a Yucca Mountain, it gets buried under hundreds of meters of rock in the middle of a depopulated desert, where it’s far less likely to come in contact with people and the biosphere.

      So what the nuclear fuel cycle does on net is to take diffuse natural uranium deposits, that are more likely to cause human and ecological radiation exposures, and concentrate and sequester them in deep geologcial repositories where they are much less likely to cause those exposures.

      Remember, Soccer Dad, that radioactivity is a natural and ubiquitous aspect of life. Naturally-occurring radionuclides are all around us, in the oceans, in the sky, in the food we eat, in us. The whole world is a natural radioactive waste dump; always has been and always will be. Spent fuel repositories add nothing appreciable to that ambient radioactivity, and in fact they subtract from it a bit by sequestering naturally occurring radioactive material away from human contact.

      It’s hard to think of any industrial activity that’s safer than storing nuclear waste. There’s no reason to feel anxious about it.

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    3. @ Soccer Dad:

      --“[Nuclear] technology is fungible with weapons work, and therefore helps with the spread of weapons.”

      Nuclear proliferation is a red herring. Having civilian nuclear power plants does not much help a country develop nuclear weapons, nor does a lack of civilian plants impede a weapons program.

      The two ways to get explosive material for a nuclear bomb are to 1) enrich uranium, or 2) breed plutonium in a reactor.

      Enriching uranium has nothing to do with running a reactor, and the technologies are definitely not “fungible.” There’s no causal arrow running from civilian nuclear power plants to enrichment. People worry that a civilian nuclear program can be a “cover” and pretext for a weapons-grade enrichment program, but as the furor surrounding the Iranian enrichment program suggests, the “cover”—e.g. the Bushehr nuclear power plant--doesn’t fool anyone.

      Reactors do breed plutonium, but getting your plutonium from a civilian power plant is the hardest and most expensive possible way to do it. Fuel rods come out of a civilian plant all gunked up with other isotopes that have to be removed, with extraordinary difficulty, before the refined Pu-239 can be used in a bomb; this is something that no entity other than a national government with established reprocessing and enrichment capabilities can do. The easy way to get plutonium is to breed it in a small research reactor that’s super-cheap and easy to hide from UN inspectors and Israeli fighter-bombers; that’s the way all nuclear weapons programs have done it.

      The idea that civilian nuclear programs support nuclear weapons programs gets the history backwards. Most countries that have the bomb got it before they built civilian nuclear plants. Most countries that have civilian nuclear plants, including Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, Japan, Taiwan, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Canada, Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria and Germany, don’t have the bomb and aren’t trying to get it.

      And, of course, the issue of proliferation is completely moot when it comes to building nuclear plants in countries that already have the bomb.

      Diplomacy and arms control efforts can curb proliferation—banning civilian nukes will not.

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    4. @ Soccer Dad:

      “Nuclear is a test of high-level thinking; if you are pro-nuke, you fail, because wind and solar have to have fewer extreme [black swan] bad consequences.”

      As I argue above, wind and solar are by no means immune to potential black swan catastrophes. By far the most dangerous aspect of solar power is simply its unreliability. Intermittent and unpredictable solar and wind power makes the electric grid much more prone to interruptions and blackouts. That sounds like just an inconvenience, but in fact a temporary disruption of electricity could be much more deadly than any nuclear spew.

      In 1995 when I lived in Chicago, we had a heat wave that killed about 750 people. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1995_Chicago_heat_wave) They were mostly poor people who didn’t have air conditioners. There was no blackout; if there had been the death toll could have been many times higher. A 2003 heat wave in Europe, which has little air conditioning, is estimated to have killed 70,000 people (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2003_European_heat_wave). Again, no blackouts, but if there had been the death toll would have been worse.

      So try on this disaster scenario for an all-renewables America. It’s summertime and there’s cloud-cover over the desert Southwest where most of the solar capacity is, but extremely hot and sultry weather—hence little wind—in the rest of the country. Blackouts set in as temperatures soar. Deprived of air conditioning and fans, old and sick people start dying in droves like they did in Europe in 2003. That’s a death toll way beyond even Chernobyl’s.

      Unlikely? You bet—maybe as unlikely as a Richter 9 earthquake followed by a monster tsunami.

      Of course, grid managers will try to forestall that scenario with redundant capacity and storage schemes and grid smartness and careful planning. But, just like TEPCO miscalculated the chances of a tsunami, grid managers may not foresee a Black Swan power outage. Even if the unreliability of renewables contributes just 5 percent to a Europe-2003 scale crisis, it would still be responsible for 3500 deaths—many times more than the Fukushima accident will kill.

      The real way managers will—and do--prepare for a renewables slump is simply to retain the whole infrastructure of fossil-fueled electricity as “back-up.” Every renewables scenario tacitly requires that a lot of coal and natural gas be burned, with the attendant lethal burden of air pollution and global warming.

      And as I argued in my original post and upthread, nuclear spews have proven to be much less dangerous than people anticipated. Nuclear black swans have had public health consequence that were modest in the case of Chernobyl—and too small even to measure in the case of Fukushima.

      So, no, I won’t concede that solar and wind are less prone to black swan catastrophes than nuclear is. Soccer Dad, we need a lot more higher-level thinking on that assumption and all our other unexamined ideas about nuclear power and renewables.

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    5. @ Soccer Dad:

      --“There is a certain macho mentality in pronuclear writing. Somehow, solar wind is soft and squishy and not what real men do in conquering the natural world.”

      Pro-nuclear feminists and the many women scientists, engineers and technicians who work in the nuclear field might disagree with you. I don’t think we should cloud the debate over energy policy with hoary gender stereotypes.

      The growing groundswell of leftists who support nuclear power do so not because of a macho mentality, but because of an ethic of care and reverence for the planet and concern for human well-being. They think nuclear is an indispensable tool for decarbonizing the energy supply, and for eradicating the fossil-fuel pollution that causes so much death and disease. They recognize the emerging scientific consensus that nuclear power is extraordinarily safe, even on the rare occasions when it results in Fukushima-scale accidents. They want an energy supply that’s not just clean and safe but abundant, cheap and reliable, because a lack of electricity is a far worse killer than nuclear radiation could ever be. And they worry that wind and solar are too unreliable, too expensive, too land-hungry and too dependent on fossil fuels to solve the climate crisis by themselves.

      I hope you’ll take some time to reconsider nuclear power, Soccer Dad—for the sake of your kids and everyone else’s.

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    6. Solar doesn't produce toxic waste. It's a free choice whether to recycle the old solar panels.

      Nuclear produces far more toxic waste than you admit -- every single piece of contaminated concrete from a nuclear power plant is a "dead zone", and decommissioning becomes completely impossible after a while.

      Coal is a non-starter, so stop talking about it.

      You're what I call a nuke-worshipper. You ignore and downplay all the problems, while attacking anything which isn't a nuke -- and then you pull out Madison Avenue advertising gibberish at the end. ("Extraordinarily safe" my ass. You know better.)

      People like you actually disgust me.

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  38. The most toxic element in mainstream PV modules is cadmium, in cadmium telluride modules like those made by First Solar. Due to RoHS legislation in the EU, and Europe being the largest solar market over the past decade, the vast majority of solar modules do not contain lead solder or other lead compounds. Rare earth elements have unremarkable toxicity and in any case are not actually used in PV modules.

    The EPA's Maximum Contaminant Level for cadmium in drinking water is 5 micrograms per liter.

    It takes First Solar about 60000 kg of cadmium to make a gigawatt of thin film CdTe modules. The modules are expected to last 25 years. If they're installed in California, which achieves average solar capacity factor of 18.5% according to EIA's 2010 data, a gigawatt of modules will produce about 4.3 gigawatt years of electricity before reaching projected end of life (this figure includes 0.5% output decline per year). Imagining that the modules are simply trashed at EOL, that normalizes to about 14000 kg of cadmium per gigawatt year. Ensure that all the cadmium is unifomly dispersed into drinking water at the MCL and you've contaminated 1.4 trillion liters of water.

    The EPA regulates radionuclides a bit differently. The MCL for beta and photon emitters (i.e. all fission products) is expressed as "4 millirems per year" for a typical water drinker. Since this standard includes biological factors of emissions potency and bioaccumulation, different species have different specific activity limits: the limit for technetium-99 is 900 pCi per liter.

    We convert using specific activity to find contamination potential. A gigawatt year of electricity production from a uranium fueled thermal spectrum reactor produces about 27 kg of technetium-99 (459 Ci). That's enough to contaminate 0.051 trillion liters of water to the MCL -- only about 3.6% of the contamination achievable with 14000 kg of cadmium. Of course contamination potential is orders of magnitude greater for all current spent nuclear fuel, since it contains significant quantities of medium-lived fission products and actinides in addition to long-lived fission products. The medium-lived strontium 90 from a fresh gigawatt year of spent nuclear fuel, for example, can bring 410000 trillion liters of water to the maximum contaminant level of 8 pCi/L. After a couple of centuries it has decayed below the technetium in terms of contamination potential.

    In practice most First Solar modules are unlikely to go to landfills. And neither is technetium likely to be dumped into water, except at Sellafield :-P The European Union requires member states to recycle solar systems by 2014. The United States does not have national regulation in place but municipal and state regulations are already appearing. Finally, even in the absence of regulations, First Solar offers free collection and recycling of all of its modules, with dual benefits of burnishing its image and recovering high-value tellurium.

    Finally, coal ash is currently not recycled nor is it placed in high-integrity confinement. A typical gigawatt-year of coal ash comes to about 420000 tonnes, containing 35 ppm arsenic, 59 ppm lead, 0.9 ppm cadmium, 0.5 ppm mercury. These metals are enough to contaminate 3.4 trillion liters of water to the MCL.

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  39. The medium-lived strontium 90 from a fresh gigawatt year of spent nuclear fuel, for example, can bring 410000 trillion liters of water to the maximum contaminant level of 8 pCi/L. After a couple of centuries it has decayed below the technetium in terms of contamination potential.

    "A couple of centuries" was putting it too mildly. After looking at the numbers again with a growing sense of unease, I recalculated how long it would take for the water contamination potential of the Sr-90 to drop to that of the Tc-99. It's 22.94 half-lives, or 663 years. It would take 525 years of decay before the Sr-90 water contamination potential is below that of the cadmium from the First Solar scenario.

    On a time scale of centuries*, fission products from a given quantity of energy production become less biologically hazardous than non-radioactive (and eternal!) toxic materials embedded in or dispersed by other methods of energy production. This is why I don't consider long term fission waste storage all that big of a problem. But on the time scale of e.g. a single human lifetime, fission products from a given quantity of electricity production are orders of magnitude more trouble than the toxic metals found in solar panels or coal ash. This is why I'm much more concerned with sudden releases of fission products into the biosphere than I am with orderly packaging and long oversight of said fission products.

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  40. @ Matt,

    Thanks for those helpful calculations. (Do you have a link to your data on the reactor inventories of Sr-90 and Tc-99?)

    Yes, it’s the shorter-lived radionuclides, cesium-137 and Strontium-90, that are the important things to sequester, because they are much more radioactive.

    But there’s still not an exorbitant risk associated with them, because what counts in toxic risk is the likelihood of exposure, not the absolute quantity of toxin that’s “out there”.

    We should note how extremely conservative EPA drinking-water standards are, like the 8 pico-Curie limit for Strontium-90. If a man were to drink a gallon of water with 100 times that concentration of Sr-90 every day of his life for 80 years, he would incur a 1 percent chance of getting cancer from it, as opposed to the roughly 40 percent chance of getting cancer that he normally runs. (http://www.evs.anl.gov/pub/doc/strontium.pdf) By contrast, drinking a gallon of seawater every day for a month would almost certainly kill him—and there’s gazillions of liters of that, sitting out in the open with no containment at all.

    It’s simply not realistic to imagine that people could get significant Sr-90 exposures from waste either in dry casks or deep repositories. Even in the unlikely event that nuclear waste containment fails and it leaches into groundwater at a Yucca Mountain, there’s no plausible scenario in which people would troop to Yucca Mountain and guzzle untreated groundwater every day. They are more likely to troop to the beach and guzzle seawater until they die.

    Exposure to solar and wind waste—including large amounts of lead in the circuitry and storage batteries—is far more likely. Recycling the waste helps, but it’s not feasible to sequester it as rigorously as nuclear material. Rules for handling it will not be as strict as nuclear regulations, and of necessity it is exposed to the elements with only the flimsiest of containment structures to protect it. When a fire or other accident wrecks rooftop solar panels, for example, they will likely spill their toxic load with no cleanup. By its nature wind and solar waste remains in intimate and fragile proximity to humans forever, and toxic forever, and thus poses an appreciable exposure risk forever.

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  41. According to "Rimshaw, S. J. (1968). Hampel, C. A.. ed. The Encyclopedia of the Chemical Elements. New York: Reinhold Book Corporation. pp. 689–693", 27 mg of Tc-99 are produced from the thermal neutron fission of 1 gram of U-235. I've repeatedly seen a figure of ~1 tonne of heavy metal fissioned to produce a gigawatt year of electricity. In a LWR a significant minority of that comes from Pu-239 formed in place, but the fission product yield of Pu-239 is close enough to that of U-235 that I just used the U-235 figure for it all. That gives me 10^6 grams of U-235 fissioned, producing 27000 grams of Tc-99. If you have better data adjust upward or downward as necessary; it will of course depend on reactor outlet temperature as well as fuel.

    The other calculations were based on taking Wikipedia's tables of fission product yields for medium-lived and long-lived species, and using their atomic weights and yields relative to Tc-99 to find masses for them too. Example: Sr-90's fission product yield is 73.4% of Tc-99's, and its mass is 90.9% as much, so we can expect about (.734 * .909 * 27000) = 18015 grams of Sr-90 from a gigawatt-year of LWR electricity.

    This morning I even made a little Python program that calculates aggregate activity and activity by radionuclide from X kilograms of fission products after Y years, again using the Wikipedia tables to populate the values. I populated it with all long and medium lived fission products. As expected, activity plummets in the first few centuries. If you assume that a gigawatt year of electricity originally came from 200 tonnes of natural uranium in equilibrium with its daughter products, and in turn produced 1 tonne of fission products, it takes 720 years for the fission products to decay to the activity of the original uranium and daughter products. Not bad! Add in actinides and the curve won't fall so fast; I am cautiously optimistic that spent fuel will eventually (well before 700 years have passed) be reprocessed to extract actinides as fuel.

    No doubt my calculations can be improved on, but I felt my scribblings and programming probably got me 80% correctness with about 5% of the effort it would take to hunt down data from primary sources and set up the coupled differential equations to describe evolving mixed U/Pu fission and fission product yields in a LWR.

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  42. @ Neroden

    Thanks for your comments.

    --On nuclear spews permanently removing farmland from production:

    Actually, the radiocesium clears from the land pretty quickly so farming can resume. As I mentioned in the OP, radioactive decay and weathering will remove 40 percent of the Fukushima radiocesium after 2 years and upwards of 90 percent after 30 years. Deep plowing and other abatement techniques can speed that up. Japanese farmers are already returning to reclaim contaminated Fukushima land. (http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21328553.400-japans-refusenik-farmers-tackle-nuclear-waste.html) (http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/T120904003248.htm)

    Some contaminated areas near Chernobyl are reopening for farming. (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/22/international/europe/22belarus.html?pagewanted=all&_moc.semityn.www) (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/return-to-the-fields-of-chernobyl-2137071.html)

    Many renewable energy sources, especially solar farms, biomass and biofuels, will unquestionably take up much more land than nuclear spews ever could.

    Compare the 20-km exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant with the size of a solar farm that could replace its electricity output. The Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Florida, for example, generates 75 megawatts from 500 acres of solar mirrors, with a capacity factor of 24%, outputting 155,000 megawatt-hours per year (pretty good for a solar plant). (http://www.nrel.gov/csp/solarpaces/project_detail.cfm/projectID=45) To generate the 37,000 gigawatt-hours per year of a Fukushima Daiichi, a similar solar farm would need to cover 186 square miles–an exclusion zone that’s 83 % of the size of Fukushima’s, literally paved with mirrors sitting atop bulldozed soil. We would need thousands of such solar farms.

    Biomass and biofuels are even worse. Ethanol production uses up 40 percent of the vast corn crop in the U. S.—tens of thousands of square miles of farmland—to provide just 10 percent of U. S. auto fuel. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/10/drought-idUSL2E8JAFB920120810). That diversion significantly crowds out food production, thus driving up global food prices. The result is increased malnutrition, disease and death among poor people on a scale far worse than nuclear spews could ever cause.

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  43. @ Neroden:

    --“Coal is a non-starter so stop talking about it.”

    I would, if only people would stop building coal plants.

    Germany is building new coal plants to replace the nuclear plants they are shutting down. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-19168574). There’s talk in Japan of doing the same. (http://articles.marketwatch.com/2012-09-24/industries/34059298_1_coal-plants-nuclear-power-fukushima-plant)

    No way around it, Neroden—less nuclear means more coal. (And more natural gas, which is also very bad for the climate.)

    --“Every single piece of concrete from a nuclear power plant is a ‘dead zone,’ and decommissioning becomes completely impossible after a while.”

    Not sure what you mean here—several nuclear plants have been decomissioned and released for general use. At any rate, rapid decommissioning is a bad idea. When a reactor wears out we should just build a new one next to it and let the old one cool off for a few decades before we start dismantling it. Much easier and cheaper that way, and the plant stays in business, churning out clean energy.

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  44. The most odd part of your argument is to counterpose those terrible intermittent wind and solar producers with nuclear. I'm sure Toyota wishes it had been able to switch to unreliable wind while all that stable source baseline nuclear plant in Japan turned off and 4GW went off permanently.

    The argument about the inefficiency of rooftop solar is revealing though. The slightly lower efficiency of rooftop solar is compensated for by the low costs of transmission and in any case, this industry is not based on retrofitted 1950s military technology and is rapidly improving yields.

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    1. @ root_e

      --The vast majority of Japan’s nuclear reactors were undamaged by the big earthquake and tsunami. They did not “turn off” by themselves; they were deliberately turned off by political leaders under pressure from unwarranted anti-nuclear hysteria. (And they can be turned on again.) That’s a starkly different thing from the low capacity factors and chaotic intermittency of wind and solar, which are inherent limitations of those technologies. It’s very misleading to conflate the politically motivated shutdown of nuclear plants with the intrinsic unreliability of wind and solar.

      --It’s important not to confuse the “efficiency” of solar panels—the fraction of incident solar energy they convert into electricity—with their capacity factor, the ratio of average power production over time to peak nameplate capacity. Rising efficiency makes the nameplate wattage cheaper, but does nothing to raise the capacity factor. Even if panels were 100 percent efficient, they would still put out just a small fraction of nameplate capacity under cloud cover, and nothing at night.

      --Rooftop solar panels’ low capacity factors will not be compensated for by lower transmission losses. Transmission losses average about 6-7 percent in the United States. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission#Losses) So if rooftop panels had no transmission losses at all, that would save at most 7 percent of the produced electricity that would be lost over normal transmission distances. Discrepancies in capacity factors have a much larger impact on electricity production. For example, if a badly sited, poorly maintained rooftop panel has a 10 percent CF compared with the 15 percent CF it might have in a well-sited, well-maintained solar farm, that’s a reduction of 33 percent in the panel’s electricity production. In Germany, rooftop panels have average CFs of 8 percent or less, compared with the 11-12 percent CFs of the best German solar farms—a reduction of 27 percent or more in their potential electricity production. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_in_Germany)

      Moreover, it’s unlikely that rooftop solar panels actually will have lower transmission losses. I cannot stress enough that wind and solar generators are not local: the electricity produced by rooftop panels is not earmarked for the house, the neighborhood or even the country where they are located. Very often, the excess electrons generated on sunny days will be wired across the continent to cloudy regions. All grids are to some extent delocalized, but because wind and solar are so locally unreliable, grids dominated by them will require much more long-distance transmission than do grids with dispatchable generators. So transmission losses are likely to rise, not fall, with a higher penetration of rooftop solar.

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    2. No. You are wrong.

      Onagawa - all three reactors shut down automatically
      Fukushima Daiichi - reactors 1,2 and 3 shut down automatically; reactors 4,5 and 6 were not in operation; reactor 1 was not cooling as expected
      Fukushima Daini - all four reactors shut down automatically
      Tokai - single operational reactor shut down automatically

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12711707

      So your claim "They did not “turn off” by themselves; they were deliberately turned off by political leaders under pressure from unwarranted anti-nuclear hysteria." ?

      And this: " It’s very misleading to conflate the politically motivated shutdown of nuclear plants with the intrinsic unreliability of wind and solar."
      just seems to be a bit of not so true political propaganda.

      "Even if panels were 100 percent efficient, they would still put out just a small fraction of nameplate capacity under cloud cover, and nothing at night."

      No? Really? They don't generate power at night?
      And similarly, when nuclear power plants automatically shutdown or are shutdown for safety reasons, they produce nothing. The fact is that the fukashima disaster permanently removed 4GW of production from the grid, necessitating inefficient transmission of electricity and turning on all those temporary generators you find so painful for solar. The difference is that when the sun came out, the Fukashima reactors were still draining power from the grid, not producing.


      "Moreover, it’s unlikely that rooftop solar panels actually will have lower transmission losses. I cannot stress enough that wind and solar generators are not local: the electricity produced by rooftop panels is not earmarked for the house, the neighborhood or even the country where they are located"

      Oh come on. You are transparently shifting from rooftop solar to wind and solar generators. Of course the power is not earmarked for the house, but its first use is the house and only the excess is transmitted back into the grid - very little ends up being transported cross country.

      "All grids are to some extent delocalized, but because wind and solar are so locally unreliable, grids dominated by them will require much more long-distance transmission than do grids with dispatchable generators."

      Non sequitor.

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    3. @ root¬_e, on the unreliability of nuclear power in Japan:

      --So by your count 14 reactors “turned off” with the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. That was 26 percent of Japan’s fleet of 54 reactors. But only the 6 Fukushima Daiichi reactors—if you assume units 5 and 6 will be written off—were seriously damaged, a long-term loss of 11 percent. Another of Japan’s reactors was recently damaged by sea water, leaving 47, give or take, fit for service. Yet only 2 are actually functioning, because of political decisions to shut down the remainder (by not permitting them to restart after scheduled maintenance outages).

      What these facts clearly show is that most of Japan’s reactor fleet has been laid low by politics, not the tsunami or any intrinsic problem with the technology. If the anti-nuclear movement would relent and allow those 40-odd reactors to “turn back on,” Toyota would have lots of clean, no-carbon electricity to run its factories, instead of the polluting fossil-fueled electricity that greens tacitly prefer.

      And that clean nuclear electricity would continue round the clock, month in and month out, unlike solar power that conks out every night and with every passing—or loitering—cloud front. The only thing that’s reliable about solar is its unreliability. Every day you can count on it surging and slumping chaotically between zero and nameplate, if you’re lucky, or some small fraction of nameplate.

      With its mediocre solar resources, Japanese solar might perhaps struggle up to 15 percent capacity factors, which would mean that on average 85 percent of nameplate capacity is not producing. Compare that with the 26 percent hit that nuclear capacity took from the tsunami, only 11 percent of it long-term damage. Even when nuclear plants have been decimated by an act of God, their reliability is drastically better than the everyday routine of solar.

      Again, the main cause of Japan’s nuclear shutdowns is needless political hysteria, which can be instantly reversed by people listening to reason. The main cause of solar’s intermittency is the laws of physics; they don’t hold noisy protests, but they are much harder to get around.

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    4. @ root_e, on rooftop solar and transmission losses:

      --The fundamental mode of rooftop solar, like all wind and solar generators, is surge and slump. Panels produce a lot of juice in full midday sunlight—so much that a household can’t use anywhere near all of it--especially because people are at work or school, not at home using electricity. But then when the sun goes behind a cloud, or at night when people are home and using household electricity, the panels produce next to nothing, so the household has to draw juice from the grid. The more panels you put on a house, the worse the problem gets—the overproduction in full midday sunlight that has to be exported to the grid grows, but the extra panels are still producing little to nothing for the house to use under cloud or darkness.

      You could eliminate the overproduction by restricting the capacity of the PV system so that it only meets midday household usage, but then, given rooftop PV’s dismal capacity factors, you would be getting very little of your total household consumption from the panels. Or you can mitigate the problem with storage, but that adds a lot to the cost of solar PV, and storage systems can still be exhausted or overflowed by persistent weather systems.

      Surge and slump isn’t just a household effect, because solar production is highly correlated across large regions. Vast continental areas under high pressure systems will hugely overproduce from their panels in midday sunlight, while other vast regions will see their panels all producing little or nothing under cloud cover or darkness. These regional, and even continent-sized, correlations can persist for weeks on end. For solar to be an efficient part of the power system, local and regional surpluses have to be transmitted to areas of deficit—but that entails massive long-distance transmission. The need for long-distance transmission will only grow as all solar generation, rooftop PV included, rises—and so will the consequent transmission losses.

      Dispatchable generators, by contrast, can match their electricity output to local or regional demand, throttling up when demand rises and throttling back when it falls. They do not all overproduce electricity that then needs to be exported from an area, and then all underproduce so that electricity suddenly needs to be imported. So long-distance transmission of electricity with a grid of dispatchable generators may be much less than what’s needed with a solar and wind grid.

      We can’t say for sure just how transmission losses will fare until we have empirical data for a large-scale renewables grid, but it’s not obvious, and is indeed quite unlikely, that adding large-scale rooftop PV will reduce system-wide transmission losses.

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  45. What's your opinion on the exclusion zone around Chernobyl? I take it that you rate this also as an overreaction? Or do you think it was at least initially/partly justified?

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    1. @ carambol, on whether the Chernobyl exclusion zone was necessary:

      Chernobyl was a much bigger, scarier spew than Fukushima. In the roughly 10 sq km area known as the Red Forest, for example, fallout was so heavy that the trees died—clearly an unhealthy place. But fallout was quite variable within the exclusion zone, an area of about 1660 sq. miles including a radius of 30 km around the nuclear plant and other areas of heavy contamination. (Chernobyl was also different from Fukushima in that the authorities had less understanding of the consequences of nuclear spews back then.)

      In light of what we know now, I do think the forced evacuation of most of the EZ was probably an overreaction. But to establish that we would have to answer the counterfactual—what would the health consequences have been with no, or limited, evacuations? It’s hard to say for sure, but I’ll note that thousands of people continued to live and work in the EZ after the spew, and still do. The Chernobyl nuclear plant itself kept operating with hundreds of workers until 2000, 14 years after the accident, with no notable health problems. Studies of the “liquidators” who did recovery and cleanup work in the EZ for months to years after the accident estimate modest health effects stemming from their radiation exposures. Some studies show elevated cancer risks among the workers who got the heaviest doses, but the effect waivers on the brink of statistical significance, and may be overstated by methodological flaws. (www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2008/11-80076_Report_2008_Annex_D.pdf.)

      So would the population living in the EZ have suffered from more cancer had they stayed put? The best answer, I think, is “maybe, a little.”

      I don’t think that scale of risk justifies forced relocation, (especially because evacuation itself causes much hardship and many deaths). The Chernobyl risks are in the same ballpark as other risks that we blithely accept, like living in cities with substantial air pollution. The pollution in a Beijing or a Mexico City is undoubtedly a greater threat to ones health than the radiation in most of the Chernobyl EZ, yet we don’t evacuate those cities; we assume that people are competent to decide whether they want to endanger their lungs by living there.

      In one crucial respect, though, the Soviet authorities underreacted at Chernobyl by failing to warn the peasants not to drink milk from their cows. Children drinking milk tainted with radio-iodine was the main pathway for thyroid exposures and resulted in some 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer, the worst health problem civilians incurred from the spew. (Fortunately, thyroid cancer is readily treatable and only 15 deaths resulted.)

      Instead of mandatory evacuations, what people need after a nuclear spew is sound advice—Don’t drink the milk!—and reliable information about radiation levels and likely risks. If they get those things, there will be time for them to make considered decisions about what to do, and those decisions will be a lot calmer and saner.

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  46. Great post and excellent detailed handling of questions/criticisms. We need stuff like this in the mainstream media. How the hell do we get that to happen?

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  47. Wow! I wish I had read this when originally posted. I agree with everything. I would like to post a link to this in my three-times-weekly Fukushima Updates blog. May I? Also, if you are on Facebook, check out the Fukushima Mythbusters, Nuclear Power Plants, Nukes, and Pronuclear Friends pages...I think everyone there would be interested in your piece, too.

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    1. Thanks, Leslie, go ahead and post a link.

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  48. I feel the same ways as Leslie. Just came upon this article, very good. Your arguments in the comment section are excellent as well, so much valuable information.

    Thank you!

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  49. thanks for share.

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  50. I wish I had study this when initially published. I believe the fact with everything. I would like to publish a weblink to this in my three-times-weekly Fukushima Up-dates weblog.

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