Fukushima and the nuclear question

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Fukushima and the nuclear question

Postby Caravan Ray » Sat Mar 19, 2011 4:45 am

I saw this subject raised on Facebook recently - and that is not a very good forum for discussion.

I see the final nails being placed in the coffin of uranium based nuclear power. It is a shame it has taken a natural disaster of appalling magnitude to do this - but - if one were to trade humanity for pragmaticism - maybe there is a "good" thing to come from this (yes- I understand that is an appalling thing to say).

So - to quarantine it to the energy question - uranium based nuclear fission is an appallingly expensive way to make electricity. The realisation of the risks involved in it in recent days will only make it more expensive. The sun is there for free.

It is a fucking no-brainer question. There really is no reason to dig up enormous amounts of dirt, crush and process that dirt into yellowcake, leave behind 90% of what was dug up as toxic tailings, then take the yellowcake and expend enormous amounts of energy into processing it into fuel rods, use it for 40 years, then have to decommission the plant, treat the thousands of tonnes of concrete as toxic waste, bury it, monitor it for hundreds of years, and then there is the actual fission waste, which has to monitored for tens of thousands of years....when you can use the sun to heat water to turn turbines.

The really fascinating thing is going to be how the Japanese respond to this disaster. I expect the word "THORIUM" will suddenly become very high on Google search lists. That is fine - it is a good solution. But can we hope that the island nation will embrace the tides? That would be awesome.
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Re: Fukushima and the nuclear question

Postby Lunkhead » Sat Mar 19, 2011 7:39 am

I am really astonished how people can go on and on about how "safe" nuclear power is. To me there are various vectors of safety. Sure, one is about the odds that something will go wrong, and sure, maybe those odds are low for nuclear reactors. But another is about the severity of the situation when something does go wrong, and that is potentially very very very high for nuclear reactors (many people dead or radiation poisoned, swaths of the planet uninhabitable for generations, etc.). The energy output of these reactors is massive, so we risk it, but I wish people would recognize that we're really playing Russian roulette with these things. Most of the time it's going to be fine and we'll get tons of energy out of it, but occasionally we'll blow our brains out.

And that's not even considering the production of the fissionable materials and the handling of the spent fuel.
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Re: Fukushima and the nuclear question

Postby Generic » Sat Mar 19, 2011 7:57 am

Define severity.

I will not say that nuclear fission reactors are the safest way to generate electricity. But compared with the dominant means of generating power in today's environment (fossil fuels and coal burning), they're MUCH MUCH MUCH safer. The numbers still aren't out on the ongoing Fukushima reactor incident, but before last week, there had been two deaths from nuclear reactor incidents, EVER. Both due to human error in Chernobyl a quarter-century ago (Worth noting: the Fukushima Nuclear plants were actually comissioned six years BEFORE Chernobyl was. if people would get over this nuclear phobia, we'd be able to apply lessons learned from mistakes like this, and build some TRULY safe and efficient plants with TODAY'S technology - at the risk of understatement, Russia's 1977 state-of-the-art and Japan's 1971 state-of-the-art both lag significantly behind the global 2011 standards). It really amazes me that people point to this Fukushima crisis - in which 4 out of 55 reactors built with 1970s technology had cooling issues (one of which has had containment difficulty) after an 8.7-Richter earthquake and resultant tsunami - as evidence that nuclear reactors aren't safe. If it takes an 8.7-Richter earthquake to disrupt your standard operations, it sounds to me like you're pretty well set already.

What are the alternatives? The status quo kills more people weekly than nuclear power EVER has. Solar and wind are nice, but solar is unreliable and a lot of people object to having wind turbines built in their areas. Hyrdoelectric dams are also a good alternative, but can only really supply power to their neighboring municipalities, and even then not even enough, as it merely supplements the energy pulled in from non-renewable resources. Let's face it, if we as a society are going to keep consuming power at current rates (or even after a significant cutback in consumption), we're going to need to find a contingency plan for when the dinosaur bones run out. None of the alternatives are capable of generating the necessary power load on demand - except for nuclear plants.

I agree with Caravan Ray about one thing, though: this is probably the last nail in the coffin for nuclear power. Which is a shame, because it basically means that every first world country is stuck on fossil fuels until they run out. I wish there were somewhere else I could be when that happens.
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Re: Fukushima and the nuclear question

Postby Lunkhead » Sat Mar 19, 2011 8:45 am

When I compare worst case scenarios for nuclear reactors vs. solar/wind/tidal/geothermal plants, nuclear reactors lose. I think if people are going to invest billions and billions of dollars in energy technology, it seems like it would be better spent on making clean renewable energy more feasible, rather than on better nuclear reactors. Even if a reactor is "safe", no one has really addressed the issues Ray brought up about the production of fissionable materials and the spent fuel. And even if a reactor itself is "safe", human operators will still be problematic:

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/fukushi ... 6023073141

There will also still be a chance that something will happen that's outside the designed tolerances. I don't think that's an acceptable risk. I think we'd be better off if we applied our money and incredible ingenuity to making clean renewable energy work, and to conservation, and maybe even to a reexamination of our social mores around energy consumption.
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Re: Fukushima and the nuclear question

Postby Generic » Sat Mar 19, 2011 8:52 am

Lunkhead wrote:When I compare worst case scenarios for nuclear reactors vs. solar/wind/tidal/geothermal plants, nuclear reactors lose.


Yeah, but I wasn't talking about solar, wind, tidal, or geothermal plants with regard to the safety issue. Those are all demonstrably safer. But those have all also shown that they can't produce energy efficiently enough to be a main power source for any country whose energy consumption would justify nuclear plants. Where these types of generators exist at all, they merely supplement fossil- and coal-based production plants.

And the oil drilling and coal mining? Those are demonstrably more dangerous than nuclear. Heck, just over six months ago, an oil rig exploded and killed 11 people. Nobody in any other government is talking about how oil drilling is clearly too unsafe to continue as a practice - the crux of the arguments against oil drilling remained as it always has been - that the resource is non-renewable and pollutes the environment. And do I really need to point out the dangers of coal mining?

In my mind, new nuclear plants were our last best hope for retaining affordable energy costs through my lifetime. Now that hope is basically dashed.
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Re: Fukushima and the nuclear question

Postby Lunkhead » Sat Mar 19, 2011 10:34 am

You still haven't responded to the issues of the production of fissionable materials and the handling of spent fuel. That is a fundamental component of the cost/benefit analysis for nuclear and it's still a big "???" at least in the US. Our gov't doesn't have a plan for long term disposal of nuclear waste, after all these decades. The current "plan" is to keep it on site at the reactors indefinitely, aka, to do nothing. And that's not even getting into the production side. That doesn't inspire faith in me that nuclear is the way to go forward.

Long term, we need to have energy that doesn't require toxic or radioactive or non-renewable fuel, that doesn't create toxic or radioactive waste, and that doesn't come with the risk (no matter how small) of catastrophic meltdowns/oil spills/coal fires/global warming/etc. If we're going to spend hundreds more billions of dollars on energy technology I think it'd be a waste to spend it on "better" "safer" nuclear, even regardless of the incident in Japan. What's going on there just emphasizes the point, for many people.
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Re: Fukushima and the nuclear question

Postby Caravan Ray » Sat Mar 19, 2011 1:39 pm

Lunkhead wrote:I am really astonished how people can go on and on about how "safe" nuclear power is. To me there are various vectors of safety. Sure, one is about the odds that something will go wrong, and sure, maybe those odds are low for nuclear reactors. But another is about the severity of the situation when something does go wrong, and that is potentially very very very high for nuclear reactors (many people dead or radiation poisoned, swaths of the planet uninhabitable for generations, etc.).

There is a simpler way to describe what you just said. It is the word "risk". Risk is a function of the likelihood than an event may occur and the consequences of that event occurring.
Image

Using uranium to create electricity is by definition always going to be a high or extreme risk activity. This is because no matter how many engineering controls ($$$) are put in place to minimise the likelihood of hazards occurring - you cannot change the fact that the consequences of some of these hazards will be severe.

Generally - lower risk solutions are preferable to higher risk solutions. Of course, the risk of continued fossil fuel use far outweighs the risk of nuclear power. But plenty of lower risk solutions such as solar thermal and geothermal already exist
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Re: Fukushima and the nuclear question

Postby Caravan Ray » Sat Mar 19, 2011 2:32 pm

Generic wrote:Define severity.

There are many ways to do this. Most risk analysis describes extreme or very severe consequences in terms of breakdown of a system or loss of human life. For the purposes here I will provide the definition of a severe consequence use by one of the world's largest uranium producers:

Very serious long term environmental impairment of eco-system
http://www.bhpbilliton.com/bbContentRep ... sTable.pdf

By any definition - the current events in Japan have resulted in severe consequences

Generic wrote:I will not say that nuclear fission reactors are the safest way to generate electricity. But compared with the dominant means of generating power in today's environment (fossil fuels and coal burning), they're MUCH MUCH MUCH safer.
Given that continued use of fossil fuel carries a very high likelihood of extreme consequences - yes, that is generally correct


Generic wrote:The numbers still aren't out on the ongoing Fukushima reactor incident, but before last week, there had been two deaths from nuclear reactor incidents, EVER. Both due to human error in Chernobyl a quarter-century ago

No - there have been far more than that.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_an ... death_toll

And this does not include uranium mining incidents or the long-term chronic health impacts.


Generic wrote: (Worth noting: the Fukushima Nuclear plants were actually comissioned six years BEFORE Chernobyl was. if people would get over this nuclear phobia, we'd be able to apply lessons learned from mistakes like this, and build some TRULY safe and efficient plants with TODAY'S technology - at the risk of understatement, Russia's 1977 state-of-the-art and Japan's 1971 state-of-the-art both lag significantly behind the global 2011 standards). It really amazes me that people point to this Fukushima crisis - in which 4 out of 55 reactors built with 1970s technology had cooling issues (one of which has had containment difficulty) after an 8.7-Richter earthquake and resultant tsunami - as evidence that nuclear reactors aren't safe. If it takes an 8.7-Richter earthquake to disrupt your standard operations, it sounds to me like you're pretty well set already.

The key lesson to be learned here is that risk can never be eliminated. The engineers there certainly did a good job in designing a plant to withstand the impact of a massive earthquake - as they should, since they were building a plant exactly where a massive earthquake was a very high likelihood of occurring. But they didn't think of everything. The main failure came from the failure of a simple diesel backup generator - not the fancy nuclear stuff. Risk cannot be eliminated

Generic wrote:solar is unreliable

That's funny. For the past 40 or so years - I am pretty certain that the sun came up, right on time, every single day! And I have it on good authority that it has done this for considerably longer than that. That seems fairly reliable to me.

Generic wrote:What are the alternatives? The status quo kills more people weekly than nuclear power EVER has. Solar and wind are nice, but solar is unreliable and a lot of people object to having wind turbines built in their areas. Hyrdoelectric dams are also a good alternative, but can only really supply power to their neighboring municipalities, and even then not even enough, as it merely supplements the energy pulled in from non-renewable resources. Let's face it, if we as a society are going to keep consuming power at current rates (or even after a significant cutback in consumption), we're going to need to find a contingency plan for when the dinosaur bones run out.

None of the alternatives are capable of generating the necessary power load on demand - except for nuclear plants.

Not sure where you get that last idea from. It is simply untrue. There are a lot of ways to create electricity. The idea that it can only be created by using the stuff dug up out of the ground is an idea put about by the people that make money by selling stuff they did up out of the ground. It has no actual basis in reality.

To make electricity - all you need to do is turn a loop of wire. You can do this either directly by wind or water movement, or by heating water to make steam turn a turbine. All uranium based nuclear power is is a particularly inefficient way of heating water.

To give just one example of a far simpler and far more efficient way of doing it - solar thermal. You use the sun to heat water to create steam to turn a turbine. You use the sun to make something hot (eg. a block of graphite or salt etc), that things cools slowly and heats water. Next day, it warms up again. Cheap, reliable baseload power. Extremely simple and using existing technology. All of my domestic hot water and the heating for my swimming pool is done in exactly this way. The sun warms them up. The only difference between this and wider implementation is a matter of economies of scale




Generic wrote:I agree with Caravan Ray about one thing, though: this is probably the last nail in the coffin for nuclear power. Which is a shame, because it basically means that every first world country is stuck on fossil fuels until they run out. I wish there were somewhere else I could be when that happens.

No - it is not a shame to see the end of uranium. It is an extremely expensive, inefficient and polluting way of generating electricity.

There is not a single nuclear plant in the world that has ever been built without massive government subsidy. It is simply far too expensive. You would have no nuclear industry in the USA at all if it had not been an offshoot of the arms industry. And most of the cost has not yet been realised. Every single plant on this planet will be decommissioned one day. That means that thousands of tonnes of contaminated concrete must be disposed of safely, and this disposal will need to be monitored. The electricity companies will not pay for this. You will. Just as you (and your grandchildren etc) will be paying for the upkeep and monitoring of the disposal of spent fuel for thousands of years to come. Just as me (and my grandchildren etc) will be paying for the upkeep and monitoring of the disposal of heavy metal tailings at Mary Kathleen and Ranger etc for years to come.

And this does not even take into account the fact that uranium is an extremely rare element in the concentrations which make it an economic resource. The more gets used - the more it will cost in future. Fossil fuels certainly need to be replaced. But replacing them with just another polluting finite power source is not a very good idea.
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Re: Fukushima and the nuclear question

Postby Caravan Ray » Sat Mar 19, 2011 2:37 pm

Generic wrote:In my mind, new nuclear plants were our last best hope for retaining affordable energy costs through my lifetime. Now that hope is basically dashed.

You should think about changing your mind:

NUCLEAR energy will be more expensive than most forms of renewable energy by 2020 according to a paper by the University of NSW energy expert Mark Diesendorf

Dr Diesendorf, the deputy director of the Institute of Environmental Studies, said the cost of building a nuclear power plant has risen rapidly since 2002, from more than $US2000 per kilo watt of generation capacity installed, to about $US7400 per kw.

The latest capital cost translates to about US15¢ per kwh of electricity generated, which is projected to rise to about 20¢ per kwh over the next decade, if costs continue to rise at current rates.

The figures do not count subsidies for nuclear energy such as loan guarantees, land acquired for buffer zones around reactors or decommissioning costs.

http://www.smh.com.au/environment/energ ... 18fjb.html

There is nothing affordable about using uranium to boil water.
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Re: Fukushima and the nuclear question

Postby Lunkhead » Sun Mar 27, 2011 8:38 am

This Onion article is awesome:

http://www.theonion.com/articles/nuclea ... ple,19740/

"With the advanced safeguards we have in place, the nuclear facilities in this country could never, ever become a danger like those in Japan, unless our generators malfunctioned in an unexpected yet catastrophic manner, causing the fuel rods to melt down," said NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko, insisting that nuclear power remained a clean, harmless energy source that could only lead to disaster if events were to unfold in the exact same way they did in Japan, or in a number of other terrifying and totally plausible scenarios that have taken place since the 1950s.
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Re: Fukushima and the nuclear question

Postby Caravan Ray » Mon Mar 28, 2011 3:25 am

Lunkhead wrote:This Onion article is awesome:

http://www.theonion.com/articles/nuclea ... ple,19740/

"With the advanced safeguards we have in place, the nuclear facilities in this country could never, ever become a danger like those in Japan, unless our generators malfunctioned in an unexpected yet catastrophic manner, causing the fuel rods to melt down," said NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko, insisting that nuclear power remained a clean, harmless energy source that could only lead to disaster if events were to unfold in the exact same way they did in Japan, or in a number of other terrifying and totally plausible scenarios that have taken place since the 1950s.


Heh!!! Yes - they hit the nail on the head.

Of course, I have no doubt that engineers can reduce risk considerably. After all engineers are extremely clever people (and some are extremely charming, handsome and hung like donkeys). But it is unnecessary cost.

There was an interesting article on the ABC today discussion ongoing costs of nuclear power:

How old is too old for a nuclear reactor?
One of the touchiest topics related to nuclear power is the cost not only of replacement but dismantling and rendering inert a nuclear power plant that is past its time — decommissioning. Although about 100 have been shut down across the world only a handful have been completely dismantled. One reason the Japanese industry puts forward for extending the lives of reactors is the resistance that has been growing to building nuclear power stations in Japan — people are so opposed to new plants, the old ones have to work longer.

In Britain the government faces a decommissioning bill of £72 billion ($A115 billion) to be spent over a 100-year period. In Japan it’s the obligation of the private power companies that operate the reactors (and sell their electricity). The total cost of dismantling a Spanish reactor is calculated to be €93 million ($A130 million).Britain’s planned decommissioning of 25 reactors will be supervised by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (set up as recently as 2004) and France has already spent €480 million (and 20 years) on one decommissioning process.

http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/45650.html


Perhaps Japan should be looking across the water to their neighbours:

Incheon to House Largest Tidal Power Plant
The state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) signed a memorandum of understanding with GS Engineering & Construction, Wednesday, to build what could be the world's largest tidal power plant.

Construction of the 1,320-megawatt power plant, which will be built in Incheon Bay on the west coast, will start in the second half of next year KHNP said. The 3.9 trillion won ($3.4 billion) facility is scheduled to be completed in June 2017.

All of the expenses will be covered through private investment.

http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/bi ... 59412.html

True - that proposed plant is about one quarter the capacity of the Fukushima plant and there will no doubt be a potential for significant impact on marine ecosystems and sediment transport from the plant. But if a tsunami knocks it out - then you just loose power. You don't face the cost 25,000 years of waste containment.
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Re: Fukushima and the nuclear question

Postby Lunkhead » Mon Mar 28, 2011 11:06 am

$3.4 billion isn't even that much. We're (in the US) OK with spending $382 billion on 2443 new stealth fighter jets to maintain our air superiority, for example. We could build 100 plants like the one CR described for that money! That would produce 25x the energy of one plant like Fukushima.
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Re: Fukushima and the nuclear question

Postby anti-m » Wed Mar 30, 2011 7:16 am

Not really a solution of the scale y'all are discussing, but I've always liked this idea.

I imagine in my huuuuuge office building that you could generate a fair amount of extra wattage all whilst tackling the obesity epidemic.

Plus we'd have an excuse to never have to wear pointy shoes again.

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