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At last, a sensible comment on nuclear energy

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At last, a sensible comment on nuclear energy
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PulsarUser avatarPosts: 872Joined: Tue Feb 24, 2009 5:52 pmLocation: Belgium

Post At last, a sensible comment on nuclear energy

I'm extremely irritated by the hysteria about nuclear energy since the events in Japan. While the latest news on Fukushima certainly remains cause for concern, I am baffled how the - as always - clueless media have blown this disaster out of proportion, and how the Green Parties are hijacking the events to push through their anti-nuclear agenda.

I've never understood this dogmatic view from ecologists. A sensible person would think that our priorities should be the reduction of fossil fuels, and that nuclear power plays a key role, in combination with renewable energy. But instead, they seem to be obsessed to get rid of nuclear energy, sidestepping the fact that a) renewable energy has its drawbacks as well, and b) it would take decades - at least in my country - to replace nuclear energy, so for now there's no alternative anyway.

I find it very frustrating that the loudest voices in the debate either come from AGW-deniers or dogmatic ecologists...
So it is refreshing to read a statement from an environmental activist who actually changed his mind about nuclear energy, from anti to pro, because of what happened in Japan:

How the Fukushima disaster taught me to stop worrying and embrace nuclear power.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 22nd March 2011

You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting(1). Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution. For a clearer view, look at the graphic published by xkcd.com(2). It shows that the average total dose from the Three-Mile Island disaster for someone living within 10 miles of the plant was one 625th of the maximum yearly amount permitted for US radiation workers. This, in turn, is half of the lowest one-year dose clearly linked to an increased cancer risk, which, in its turn, is one 80th of an invariably fatal exposure. I'm not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective.

If other forms of energy production caused no damage, these impacts would weigh more heavily. But energy is like medicine: if there are no side-effects, the chances are that it doesn't work.

Like most greens, I favour a major expansion of renewables. I can also sympathise with the complaints of their opponents. It's not just the onshore windfarms that bother people, but also the new grid connections (pylons and power lines). As the proportion of renewable electricity on the grid rises, more pumped storage will be needed to keep the lights on. That means reservoirs on mountains: they aren't popular either.

The impacts and costs of renewables rise with the proportion of power they supply, as the need for both storage and redundancy increases. It may well be the case (I have yet to see a comparative study) that up to a certain grid penetration, 50 or 70% perhaps?, renewables have smaller carbon impacts than nukes, while beyond that point, nukes have smaller impacts than renewables.

Like others, I have called for renewable power to be used both to replace the electricity produced by fossil fuel and to expand the total supply, displacing the oil used for transport and the gas used for heating fuel. Are we also to demand that it replaces current nuclear capacity? The more work we expect renewables to do, the greater the impacts on the landscape will be, and the tougher the task of public persuasion.

But expanding the grid to connect people and industry to rich, distant sources of ambient energy is also rejected by most of the greens who complained about the blog post I wrote last week(3). What they want, they tell me, is something quite different: we should power down and produce our energy locally. Some have even called for the abandonment of the grid. Their bucolic vision sounds lovely, until you read the small print.

At high latitudes like ours, most small-scale ambient power production is a dead loss. Generating solar power in the UK involves a spectacular waste of scarce resources(4,5). It's hopelessly inefficient and poorly matched to the pattern of demand. Wind power in populated areas is largely worthless. This is partly because we have built our settlements in sheltered places; partly because turbulence caused by the buildings interferes with the airflow and chews up the mechanism. Micro-hydropower might work for a farmhouse in Wales; it's not much use in Birmingham.

And how do we drive our textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways, not to mention advanced industrial processes? Rooftop solar panels? The moment you consider the demands of the whole economy is the moment at which you fall out of love with local energy production. A national (or, better still, international) grid is the essential prerequisite for a largely renewable energy supply.

Some greens go even further: why waste renewable resources by turning them into electricity? Why not use them to provide energy directly? To answer this question, look at what happened in Britain before the industrial revolution.

The damming and weiring of British rivers for watermills was small-scale, renewable, picturesque and devastating. By blocking the rivers and silting up the spawning beds, they helped bring to an end the gigantic runs of migratory fish that were once among our great natural spectacles and which fed much of Britain: wiping out sturgeon, lampreys and shad as well as most seatrout and salmon(6).

Traction was intimately linked with starvation. The more land that was set aside for feeding draft animals for industry and transport, the less was available for feeding humans. It was the 17th-Century equivalent of today's biofuels crisis. The same applied to heating fuel. As EA Wrigley points out in his new book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, the 11 million tonnes of coal mined in England in 1800 produced as much energy as 11 million acres of woodland (one third of the land surface) would have generated(7).

Before coal became widely available, wood was used not just for heating homes but also for industrial processes: if half the land surface of Britain had been covered with woodland, Wrigley shows, we could have made 1.25 million tonnes of bar iron a year (a fraction of current consumption(8)) and nothing else(9). Even with a much lower population than today's, manufactured goods in the land-based economy were the preserve of the elite. Deep green energy production, decentralised, based on the products of the land, is far more damaging to humanity than nuclear meltdown.

But the energy source to which most economies will revert if they shut down their nuclear plants is not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel. On every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power(10,11). Thanks to the expansion of shale gas production, the impacts of natural gas are catching up fast(12).

Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.


And to get some perspective about radiation doses, this chart is extremely helpful:
http://xkcd.com/radiation/
I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant. - Robert McCloskey

Science doesn’t know everything … religion doesn’t know ANYTHING.
Fri Mar 25, 2011 3:55 pm
borrofburiModeratorPosts: 3508Joined: Sun Jul 26, 2009 5:27 pm Gender: Male

Post Re: At last, a sensible comment on nuclear energy

Pulsar wrote:And to get some perspective about radiation doses, this chart is extremely helpful:
http://xkcd.com/radiation/

Argh. I was all "well I've got this cool little chart you can use to make people stfu about how Fukushima proves that nuclear is scary and awful"...
Fri Mar 25, 2011 4:27 pm
amanda morePosts: 2Joined: Sat Jul 09, 2011 7:03 am Gender: Female

Post Re: At last, a sensible comment on nuclear energy

Nope. The first job I was offered out of college was nuclear power plant operator. Happened to do something else.

An analogy is: Are airplanes safe?

Well they could be built safe according to this guy above. New is safer? Please. They are called test pilots for a reason.
Flying 30 year old planes is safe? Well what if you have an actual true inspector the kind not being paid by the company? Just like we have a health inspector for a restaurant then we have one for an airplane.

It turns out in this country to build a safe reactor costs too much. First off the St. Lucie plant in Florida is only 20 feet above sea level and on the beach. That right there tells you it isn't safe as hurricane Camille came in higher than that.

If a government is going to approve that location, they aren't going to be freaked about two inspectors at a plant that naturally get along with management and are not at arm's length. The only thing standing between you and crashing the plane is required maintenance and maintenance checks and an objective FAA. It has weathered political stuff and stands strong.

This is what I found scary. The only thing standing between you and nuclear accidents is therefore government or

Politicians

Here is this as a simple math problem. Say It would cost a trillion dollars to site,design and build a reactor that would meltdown once in a thousand years. But it would cost only 200 billion dollars to build one that is so dangerous that out of 200 reactors, one would be melting down every year or once in 200 years for each one. Engineers are kind of cool with the second reactor because their job disappears with the first do to the high costs making it infeasible and many times the cost of coal.

This is without the high cost of rebuilding the reactor constantly when it is 40 years old. Which, if it was to be maintained safe would constantly have to be done.

I am now so pleased with those who halted the nuclear industry and stopped new plants. They may not have been as articulate as many would have liked but thank goodness they got the job done. Now taxpayers costs to haul fuel rods away is huge but not insurmountable. Although industry keeps the junkers clunking along do to decommissioning costs.
Sun Jul 10, 2011 2:29 am
CaseUser avatarPosts: 1080Joined: Sun Feb 28, 2010 9:40 pm Gender: Cake

Post Re: At last, a sensible comment on nuclear energy

Ah, why, Pulsar, why? I liked you so much...

I have no son. :facepalm:
I am determined that my children shall be brought up in their father's religion, if they can find out what it is.
Charles Lamb (1775 - 1834)

Atheism is a non-prophet organization.
Sun Jul 10, 2011 10:44 am
CosmicJoghurtPodcasterUser avatarPosts: 808Joined: Tue Oct 26, 2010 7:59 pm Gender: Pinecone

Post Re: At last, a sensible comment on nuclear energy

amanda more wrote:Nope. The first job I was offered out of college was nuclear power plant operator. Happened to do something else.

An analogy is: Are airplanes safe?

Well they could be built safe according to this guy above. New is safer? Please. They are called test pilots for a reason.
Flying 30 year old planes is safe? Well what if you have an actual true inspector the kind not being paid by the company? Just like we have a health inspector for a restaurant then we have one for an airplane.

It turns out in this country to build a safe reactor costs too much. First off the St. Lucie plant in Florida is only 20 feet above sea level and on the beach. That right there tells you it isn't safe as hurricane Camille came in higher than that.

If a government is going to approve that location, they aren't going to be freaked about two inspectors at a plant that naturally get along with management and are not at arm's length. The only thing standing between you and crashing the plane is required maintenance and maintenance checks and an objective FAA. It has weathered political stuff and stands strong.

This is what I found scary. The only thing standing between you and nuclear accidents is therefore government or

Politicians

Here is this as a simple math problem. Say It would cost a trillion dollars to site,design and build a reactor that would meltdown once in a thousand years. But it would cost only 200 billion dollars to build one that is so dangerous that out of 200 reactors, one would be melting down every year or once in 200 years for each one. Engineers are kind of cool with the second reactor because their job disappears with the first do to the high costs making it infeasible and many times the cost of coal.

This is without the high cost of rebuilding the reactor constantly when it is 40 years old. Which, if it was to be maintained safe would constantly have to be done.

I am now so pleased with those who halted the nuclear industry and stopped new plants. They may not have been as articulate as many would have liked but thank goodness they got the job done. Now taxpayers costs to haul fuel rods away is huge but not insurmountable. Although industry keeps the junkers clunking along do to decommissioning costs.



Well guess what...? It's still our best option.

Are houses unsafe because they're often made with cheaper materials than the ones requested? It's not the houses that are the problem. It's who makes them. And the same with nuclear plants. Nuclear energy has enormous potential, and I've failed to find any "eco-clean" alternatives.

So have fun having countries stop their nuclear plant plans and rely on more fossil fuels, struggling to find any renewable source of energy that has such potential.

And @Pulsar,

Great finding. I, too, am troubled by the anti nuclear power propaganda that I get, even at school, by teachers. Stupid idiots, instead of trying to stop using fossil fuels, they're busy trying to stop using nuclear power.
Perception of reality results in interpretation of reality which results in a deformation of reality.
Fri Aug 26, 2011 2:41 pm
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