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The Nuclear Debate
Jamais Cascio, 20 Jan 06

The audio recording of the Peter Schwartz/Ralph Cavanagh discussion at the last Seminar About Long-Term Thinking isn't yet up, but Stewart has written up a brief but fairly complete summary of their arguments, and posted it to the new Long Now discussion boards.

Meanwhile, Schwartz said, world demand for energy will continue to grow for decades, as two billion more people climb out of poverty and developing nations become fully developed economies. China and India alone will double or quadruple their energy use over the next 50 years. We will run out of oil in that period. That leaves coal or nuclear for electricity. Conservation is crucial, but it doesn't generate power. Renewables must grow fast, but they cannot hope to fill the whole need. Nuclear technology has improved its efficiency and safety and can improve a lot more. Reprocessing fuel will add further efficiency. [...]

California, Cavanagh said, has led the way in developing a balanced energy policy. Places like China are paying close attention. PG&E has become the world's largest investor in efficiency, led by Carl Weinberg (who was in the audience and got a round of applause). And now there are signs that California may become the leader in setting limits to carbon emissions. Within limits like that, then the private sector can compete with full entrepreneurial zest, and may the best technologies win. Nuclear would have to compete fairly with new forms of biofuels and with ever improving renewables.

Fair warning: most of the comments on the Long Now boards are from people with quite a bit of knowledge about nuclear power engineering and a strong pro-nuclear perspective. If you choose to weigh in, be sure to have your facts straight. That said, the posters seem to have very little knowledge about renewables, and a few have made the kinds of blanket -- and factually incorrect -- pronouncements about renewable energy that they'd quickly dismiss were they about about nuclear energy.

Aside from the nuclear discussion, there's not a lot of content up yet on the Long Now boards, but go and take a look around. I'm certain that you'll find much of interest for WorldChangers.

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Comments

Fair warning: most of the comments on the Long Now boards are from people with quite a bit of knowledge about nuclear power engineering and a strong pro-nuclear perspective.

I wonder if there is a correlation between being pro-nuclear and having quite a big of knowledge about the subject.


Posted by: Brian on 20 Jan 06

No -- there are plenty of people who know quite a bit about nuclear energy and believe strongly that it's the wrong choice. Ralph Cavanagh, the anti-nuclear speaker, is a prime example.

I think the correlation is more likely between people who don't look at non-technical sides of an issue and people who are strongly pro-nuclear. There's something of a "talking past each other" quality to the nuclear debate: people who focus on the technical details dismiss any concerns about the political or social institutions around the industry, while people who focus on the institutional aspects of the industry don't seem to pick up that the technology is evolving, and problems from 30 years ago may no longer be relevant.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 20 Jan 06

So what do we think about Amory Lovins' argument that cogen and other small distributed power sources are far better buys? I have just read his stuff and it seems pretty good to me, esp. the long statement about nuclear power for South Africa and its list of why it looks like something a utility company should be shy of.


Posted by: wimbi on 20 Jan 06

Something rings of truth in your judgement Mr Cascio. There's a lot of talking past each other. Just two days ago I railed someone on slashdot for complaining about people who opt to remain technically ignorant. On the other hand, these are not the people who should be making decisions.

On the other hand, many egg heads are really good at simply ignoring the deeper ramifications, the societal impacts, and keeping their blinders on. We do need someone to keep us in check, but at the same time just as us nucle-ites wrote off renewables without real reason and backup, many non-technical people will only be more stubborn in their talking-past.

As for renewables just not being enough... please, elucidate me. As an engineer, I just dont see its viability. They all require reserve. None of them are constant. Many of the current stats indicate little demand for power, new plants coming online when they're not needed, but at the same time prices continue to rise and alternatives (gas & oil) are only getting even more unreasonably expensive. The thought of rip and replacing with something thats not going to work on a windy day seems a little fanciful. The thought of 100 MW wind farms, while cumulatively extremely important, is little more than quaint in comparison to what a hydrogen economy is going to require, or whatever electricity driven form the future holds. The thought of trying to make stable power out of 400 MW wind farms is... well, inconcievable.

And my other little thing... we're all worried about thermohaline stopping. What exactly is going to be the net effects of pulling even a meager 1000 gigawatts of power with windmills? That's GOT to have atmospheric effects. I havent heard ANYTHING about that, no reports, nothing. I'm not saying its tied to thermohaline, I'm just pointing out draining the worlds power out of the wind circulation could have unforseen ill consequences. We ought at least put some bright minds to work thinking about that before we decide its our new friendly salvation all of a sudden. There are things beyond control when you're talking about tapping the raw force of mother nature, what happens when we start changing wind patterns, when thermohaline stops, when magnetic poles shift, when god sneezes, what happens when the wind shifts and all of a sudden the 300MW's powering Spain are now 68 megawatts... not overnight, not for a bad week, not for a month, for someones life time. How sustainable is your sustainable, really? [actually in truth very sustainable... i'm just saying, no one bothers to ask these questions because we already "know" its very sustainable. but i would like some real answers please.]

I just dont see how even a best case scenario pleasant mix of hydro & wind can provide sustaining & sustainable power to replace the extremely dense form of energy we've come to rely on. On the other hand, I see Gen IV reactors providing enough heat to start developing "hydrogen economy", enough power cheap enough to one day shut down the coal we've already got some day (after g4 become totally de-jure/de-facto), enough consistency to keep everything runing, enough safety to be worry free and sans all environmental concerns. We're going to need a lot more power, massively more amounts, once everything comes off the grid. The energy densities of gasoline are astronomical, simply astounding, and we're going to have to shift all that power consumption to the grid. Driving down the block and up the hill I use more kWh than I normally do in a week at my home. We need mass deployments to make our current lives livable, the demand will certainly certinaly be there. I think after we realized the jam we've gotten ourselves into we'll start really deploying the big guns. At first you'll have your green distributed renassance as a couple rich and middle class and communities build personal wind farms. But ultimately only thats holding over a couple people, ultimately, get ready for something vile, its essentially selfish, doing what you can for yourself, its opportunistic self preservation in the face of something very fucking scary. Even the couple hundred megawatt installs are not going to make heating a house in Maine winter reasonale price again. We need much much more power. Our society needs it. And once we start needing massive scaling, I dont see how wind&hydro will do that for us. Gen IV is the way to go, is the consistent way to go, is the massive no-bets must save this planet must save everyone way to fix this mineatur crisis. Your renewables will hlpe us survive. But I just cant see them being sufficient to help us flourish.

Forgive my predeliction, my oration, but can renewables truly scale?

that guy,
rektide


Posted by: rektide on 20 Jan 06

That linked article? Look at the figure one projection graph. Look at the costs section. That linked distributed power article is actually largely talking about natural gas & other combined-cycle casinghead's. :/

I personally plan on doing some serious work with distributed power generation in my lifetime. It'll do wonders for me and my community. But its not going to help anyone else, not really. We should we warry of mistaking the privledge for being able to provide for yourself with the need to provide for yourself.


Posted by: rektide on 20 Jan 06

I have reflected for a long time on Brian's question whether there is a correlation between being pro-nuclear and having quite a bit of knowledge on the subject. I've also worked in the nuclear industry for over twenty years. I would partially agree with Brian's hypothesis, and I'm split regarding various parts of Jamais Cascio's response.

One thing I can tell you is that unless you've worked at a nuclear plant in some capacity (for the utility, NRC, insurance companies, etc.) it is almost impossible to have a good handle on how these units are actually operated and what the most significant problems and costs are. For reasons of politics and public relations that are too complex to describe in detail here (and which are not necessarily sinister), no one working in or around the industry is going to give an good, full account of things that an outsider will be capable of understanding. I've looked and looked and never found anything in the media or academic literature that's even come close to giving the true picture. There simply hasn't been a way for an outsider to get this necessary perspective.

This is why I must disagree with Mr. Cascio to some extent. I don't believe Mr. Cavanaugh has ever worked at a nuclear plant (based on my limited knowledge of him). While he may have a firm grasp of the economics, and perhaps the broader social aspects, of the energy industry - which are important - it's very unlikely he has an understanding of the decision-making processes that go on day-to-day, week-to-week at a power plant, or the various technical issues encountered on a daily basis (not just the items that make the papers or prominent NRC reports.) These issues have huge impacts on both safety and costs. This doesn't mean Mr. Cavanaugh's opinion isn't useful, but there are some knowledge gaps there (as there are with all "experts") and these should be recognized. I believe the same outsider status holds true for the individual on the pro-nuclear side of the argument, Mr. Schwartz.

In a sense, the debate was like that between two lawyers deciding how to regulate brain surgery. They can handle the economics part and the lawsuit part and come up with laws that work for those issues, but to make sure they don't render it impossible to actually perform the operation, it's good to have a doctor in the room. There wasn't a doctor participating in this event. (And I doubt if they could have found one willing to speak freely.)

In this case I agree totally with Mr. Cascio's comment about the economic/social and technical sides of the nuclear debate "talking past each other". Most definitely. Politics plays some role too, as nuclear folk tend to lean strongly conservative and the more vocal nuclear opponents tend to lean strongly the other way (and we know how well those groups get on in general). For the debate, though, I'm afraid the technical view was not really represented at all. (Again, I don't think it could have been in today's environment.)

One other huge factor in any nuclear debate is the almost total public misunderstanding of energy production in general (many think a few windmills can replace a large power plant), and nuclear risks in particular (the view that any radiation is potentially deadly, etc). This misunderstanding can make any case against the industry seem very compelling from the outset, regardless of the economics. (And I admit here I don't have a firm grasp of those economics.) While I would expect the crowd at the Long Now debate to have been a bit more sophisticated than average, you'd be surprised sometimes.

Which brings me back to Brian's point. Those who operate and monitor nuclear plants may not be as capable of addressing the broader economic and social issues of nuclear power as some on the outside. But they do have far more knowledge of how these machines actually work -- and what it takes to keep them working well. So it is true, in the sense of technical, real world experience, that the vast majority of those with this background are pro-nuclear (or lean that way) - or else they wouldn't be doing that job. There are a few exceptions who have gone from working at plants to watchdog groups (without also having a personal axe to grind) but they are very few, and they also may become beholden to putting forth the view of their new employer, whether their personal experience dictates it or not.

My apologies for droning on so long. As for me - I'm ambivalent on nuclear's future. There's good stuff and bad about it, like every energy source.

I would note that there IS now a way for outsiders to get an insider's view of nuclear plant operation and how an accident might be handled. It's my novel "Rad Decision", available at no cost at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com. Within the text I also tried to address some of the social issues (but stayed away from the economics for the most part). The reasons why insiders hold back a bit when talking to the public also become more apparent, as do some of the issues surrounding risks and costs. Readers on all sides of the nuclear issue will find points to agree with, and to ponder, in Rad Decision.

Stewart Brand (host of the LNF seminar) has endorsed my book, stating "I'd like Rad Decision to be widely read." Take a look, and if you find it useful, please pass the word.

Keep thinking hard on this stuff. We need to figure it out eventually.

James Aach


Posted by: James Aach on 20 Jan 06

Rektide, you seem to conflate "renewables" with "wind," as if the latter was the only source of renewable energy. It's not; it happens to be currently the least costly per kilowatt-hour (cheaper than natural gas in many locations), but other renewable energy sources exist. Moreover, it's important to remember that supporters of renewable energy aren't talking about dropping in a single technology as a replacement for all coal/gas/nuclear plants -- part of the strength of renewable energy comes from its mix of technologies.

Some of the non-wind renewables, such as solar photovoltaic and solar-Stirling, suffer from intermittency, but that's not a universal problem. Wave energy and ocean current energy -- both moving from labs to early implementations, largely in Europe -- aren't intermittent at all, and early experiments with solar towers (which use heat differentials to drive air flow) show that they can provide power both day and night.

The other element here that's worth remembering is that some renewable energy systems make it possible to build distributed energy networks that have greater reliability than centralized networks and can take advantage of otherwise unused space in urban settings (e.g., rooftop solar). I'm *not* talking about off-the-grid energy only for one's own home, I'm talking about homes (and businesses) being part of the power network, producers as well as consumers. Add in greater energy use efficiency -- and there's a *lot* of room for improvement there -- and it's easy for home wind & solar to become income sources.

Speaking of efficiency, bear in mind that boosting use efficiency from its current 1% annual improvement to 2% would dramatically reduce the amount of energy we'll need, globally, by the end of this century; if we could boost that to an average of 3% annually, we'd actually need less energy by 2100 than we use now -- and that's for a planet of 10 billion people, all with European-level standards of living. (Here's a longer discussion of the concept.) These numbers may not include the energy required for an electric transportation system, but even so, you can see that increased efficiency would make it easier to generate power for that purpose.

The point is, renewable energy does scale, when you get beyond thinking of it as just wind, and get beyond thinking of it as drop-in replacement for massive power plants. A mix of sources (wind, solar, geothermal, wave, current, tidal, solar tower, solar stirling) and greater distribution of production make renewable energy technologies quite a reasonable alternative.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 21 Jan 06

James, I know you don't mean it this way, but what you say above comes startlingly close to saying that only people who have worked as nuclear engineers should be allowed to make any decisions regarding the use of nuclear power.

I have no doubt that hands-on experience with running such a plant gives insights into the operation of the technology that wouldn't otherwise be available. People with hands-on experience should definitely be part of the discussion about the issue. But operational experience doesn't translate into a better understanding of how the waste should be dealt with, mind you, or the results of "agency capture" or industrial malfeasance.

One problem I see is that many who do have intimate operational knowledge of nuclear power seem to think that the debate focuses soley on technical issues -- a perspective undoubtedly derived, at least in part, from the 1970s version of the nuclear debate, which *did* emphasize operational safety. Today's version of the discussion is quite different, and looks primarily at issues of governance, industrial behavior, material safety after it has left the power production cycle, plant security (vis-a-vis intentional external attack), and honesty about costs.

Basically, a lot of the educated opposition to expansion of nuclear power in the US comes down to the fact that the industry has not historically behaved in ways that engender trust. Personally, I am much less worried about the technology -- which I understand relatively well, albeit not with the insights of hands-on work -- than I am about the organizations that own, operate and oversee the plants. I recognize that nuclear can, in principle, be done safely and efficiently -- but evidence suggests that we wouldn't get safety and efficiency, we'd get cut corners, dishonesty, and more money spent on lobbying the regulators than on abiding by regulations.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 21 Jan 06

Somebody else pointed me to the Long Now discussion a couple of days ago, but I didn't have an opportunity to respond. It's a good discussion of the issues, but as pointed out by Jamais and others here, this issue of the scalability of renewables is central, and for some reason nuclear advocates feel the need to denegrate it, usually without good justification at all.

I've exchanged correspondence with the highly respected physicist Richard Garwin on this too - for instance, in his book "Megawatts and Megatons" about energy options, he concludes that renewables are inadequate, but makes an elementary mathematical error that puts the numbers for renewables a factor of 30 less than they are in reality - this was corrected in a later erratum to the book. The corrected table indicates that solar has more than enough potential to meet all world energy needs while using a fraction of 1% of land area, and wind can supply a good fraction of world energy needs as well. The fact that someone so distinguished on the nuclear energy side could publish a book with numbers so far off for renewables indicates how little real thought the nuclear advocacy community puts into non-nuclear alternatives.

The intermittency problem is certainly an issue; cheaper energy storage, worldwide low-loss transmission systems, or renewables without that issue may be the solution. But even nuclear advocates admit renewables can easily supply the 15-20% of electric supply that nuclear fission does now without worrying about the intermittency issue.

The real problem with nuclear fission or any alternative is the rate at which new generating sources can come on line. The promised "Gen IV" reactors are still in early R&D phases, and won't reach production for 15-25 years. How fast can renewables scale up?

Growth rates of 30-40% for worldwide solar and wind installations have been sustained for several years now, but that's growth from a relatively small base. What could happen if they truly become cost effective solutions could easily dwarf those growth rates: the internet managed to grow in capacity at rates of 800% or more during its peak, and that was real installations of fiber and hardware, not just an increase in ephemeral bits. Continued increases in costs for oil or a renewable technology that is truly cost effective could easily reach installation growth rates at that level. Pronouncements that this is impossible are either naive or deliberately misleading.


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 21 Jan 06

What many forget is this nation is made up of both camps ans both ideas will prevale. There will be nuke plants and there will be solar and wind and wave plants. And in fact the same people likely will own all types of those plants.

Thats the thing so many forget the true strength of america is we do everything we choose every option.

Nuke plants will be built where consentrated energy for major energy needs and where concentrated production of hydrogen and energy are needed. Solar and wind and wave will be built where distributed energy sources are needed.

Each is a tool and all have thier place.


Posted by: wintermane on 22 Jan 06

Jamais,

I understand what you are saying about the concept within the industry that only nuclear folks should make the decisions, and that they should be only technical in nature. I think you are correct in saying this is a common perception among industry workers. In addition to your historical reason, I would say some of it comes from the fact that nuclear personnel are comfortable in their own minds with the other categories you mention (governance, security, etc.). I probably fell into that same camp to a great extent fifteen years ago, but I think my own views have softened a bit to include a larger circle of commentators who have useful things to say about elements beyond the technical issues.

I would note, however, that for every Ralph Cavanaugh I encounter (who provide useful information and perspective) I run into a lot more folks who simply don’t have a grasp of things and will say things that are patently untrue or otherwise very outrageous. As an example, I believe this Sunday night’s “West Wing” episode includes a segment on a nuclear power plant accident. I’ve seen a synopsis and it is very silly in a number of areas. (Not just minor technical problems, but gross errors in technical and regulatory information.) Of course this is just a fictional TV show. However, when I dropped by a West Wing blog to briefly note this, there was a press release from an anti-nuclear group citing this TV show as yet another example of why nuclear power needs to go by the wayside. I’m afraid those in the nuclear industry tend to view all opponents as on that sort of simplistic level.

Your comments on items such as governance and regulation are clearly not without merit, but here again, providing an insider perspective can also be helpful. See Episode 11 of my novel (from “Steve considered the point”). There are other spots sprinkled throughout the first two-thirds of the book that address this and other non-technical items you have mentioned, from an insider perspective.

The catastrophic nuclear accident caused by terrorists seems to be the major fear of the public. Of course, even if I did know much about plant security (which I don’t) I couldn’t discuss it. My novel avoids this topic, but it provides some perspective on what is necessary on the ground for a nuclear accident to occur. The plane-into-containment part of the equation is part of it – I don’t have detailed knowledge of the detailed structure/impact side of it, but I think we all must remember how much smaller a target a reactor dome (and fuel storage pool area) is than the WTC or Pentagon. (Speaking of big targets, I got a kick out of a recent news magazine article that showed a set of the huge hyperbolic cooling towers some plants have, and asked “Are These Towers Safe?” There seemed to be some implication those would be the target of an air attack. Great – anyone with any knowledge of nuclear would know that spot would be the least productive site for an explosion.)

Regarding waste management, I again don’t know enough personally to contribute there, but there are folks at each power plant who do, because they deal with the waste streams every day. Regarding management malfeasance – I have never witnessed it personally or in my own workplaces, so I also can’t provide insight there. (In short, if I don’t know the topic really well, I try to stay quiet on it since I’m hoping to speak as somewhat of an “expert”. I would not be a good pundit, I’m afraid.)

Overall, I don’t think we are that far apart on what the nuclear conversation of the future should include. People like Mr. Cavanaugh and Mr. Schwartz are valuable participants.

I believe, however, there are many people active in the debate who are not valuable participants, generally because they are hardened ideologues on one side of the debate or other and/or they say things that just aren’t technically true or would otherwise provoke a laugh or disgusted shake of the head from those of us on the inside. I would note that while I’ve had this experience more often with anti-nuclear commentators, it’s also happened with pro-nuclear think tank types and PR personnel. (These pro-nukes might, perhaps, talk of the wonders of some new analysis or regulatory approach that in practice just isn’t working out so well.) I guess my point is that it would be useful to have individuals participating in the debate who could correct such gross errors. It would also be very helpful if the audience had a bit more basic knowledge to start with – hence, my book. Based on Stewart Brand’s summary of the debate, the kind of expert I’m talking about wouldn’t have had much to say during the Long Now forum. Of course, as I’ve noted, it’s hard to find such people to begin with. (My book also discusses why).

Regarding one comment Mr. Smith made after mine was published, I’m not sure what it’s called (Generation IV or whatever) but I believe there has been at least one upgraded nuclear design approved by the NRC, with a few more on the table. I also recall they are building one in Japan. There has also been a lot of work done on “streamlining” the approval process so that lawsuits designed to grind things to a halt can only be inserted into a few points of the process. (We’ll see about that.) It’s also reported as likely that plans to construct a new nuclear plant will be announced here in the US in the near future, probably using one of these upgraded designs. I suspect it will be more like 5 – 7 years from announcement to on-line status, barring legal complications. If you do the math, a typical 1000 MW nuclear plant, operating at 80% capacity, would need to be replaced by several thousand windmills operating at 30% of rated capacity (which is good for windmills). Installation time on these might not be as long as a nuclear plant by any stretch, but it would take awhile. Still, Mr. Smith’s general comments on nuclear folks attitude toward renewables has some merit. This comes back again to hearing too many advocates on the “clean energy” make claims that are wrong, misleading, or leave out a lot of the information about how hard it would be to make the switch. Mr. Smith is clearly not in this camp, and I’ve been noting there are an increasing number of renewable advocates like him who are bringing hard numbers to the table instead of utopian visions. That is a very good thing. I hope they continue to educate the public in that manner.

So, again, I see I’m babbling on. I’d encourage you to read Rad Decision (http://RadDecision.blogspot.com), as it will provide a deeper perspective on some things (and nothing at all on others). And, of course, it’s wildly entertaining (and not as long-winded as I am here).

At any rate, this is a good discussion and I encourage you and others to keep digging into the energy issue.

James Aach


Posted by: James Aach on 22 Jan 06

James - NRC has indeed recently certified four "advanced" reactor designs - the General Electric ABWR, the Westinghouse AP600, the Westinghouse System 80+ reactor, and the Westinghouse AP1000. (See this page for more info). None of these are the really "new technology" ideas that have been touted for Generation IV - rather these are an evolutionary "Generation III+" - designed to be safer, simpler to operate, and more standardized than existing plants, but built on pretty much the same old once-through enriched uranium/steam turbine technology. The Gen IV ideas are what people are touting as really new technology - efficient fast breeders and waste recycling for instance - that are essential if nuclear is to provide a major portion of future energy supply for more than a decade or two, but still very much unproven, both technologically and economically. But, I agree, worth the R&D investment if there's a chance they could work as advertised.

Several utilities in the US have made noises about starting to build new reactors, but none that I am aware of have actually put down any sort of schedule - even if one makes a start by next year, it's unlikely to have a new plant operating in the US before 2010, or even later if your 5-7 years is right. Meanwhile, solar will likely be adding the equivalent of at least a GW-scale nuclear plant every year by then, with a doubling time of 3 years or less; wind, until it reaches capacity limits, will be adding even more.

The other problem is the trust issue - I was just listening to the "Living on Earth" radio show earlier today and they had a report on a reactor accident in 1959 very close to LA, at a Boeing/Rocketdyne 20 MW liquid sodium research reactor. There seems to be some dispute about what happened - if there actually was a significant radiation release (the claim was this was the third worst release, after Chernobyl and Windscale), the details were kept quiet for more than 40 years until a recent lawsuit. Are there other reactor accidents that have happened out there, that we still don't know about? This secrecy issue (tied in to the invisibility of radiation as a threat) is a major part of the problem for the nuclear industry, even if the designs in question have nothing to do with modern power reactors.


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 22 Jan 06

The plan is to ram through 5 reactors using a heavily streamlined process and lawsuit protections and then after any bugs in the lawsuit protection side of things are fixed go on to produce about 250 plants.

No idea how many of those 250 are planned to be type 4 and 4+ I do know some type 5s are planned to be built before the entire 250 plant project ends. Most of these plants will be built right next to existing nuke plants by the way and because they are bigger and better they are expected to provide far more power then the current 127 plants we have.

The type 4 and 5 are mainly of interest because they will be more efficent to operate as they will provide just as much power as a normal plant and a huge hydrogen fuel stream to boot.


Posted by: wintermane on 23 Jan 06

Hmm, I hadn't heard the "250" plan - wintermane, who is behind this? But anyway, just to meet today's US energy needs (100 quads/year or about 3 TW) would take on the order of 1000 GW-scale nuclear plants even if the full heat ratio of 3 could be usefully used - more likely about 1500 would really be needed (that would supply 1.5 TW electric). So 250, even if larger, would still not be enough; we'd have to repeat the 250 4 or 5 times.

And if US population growth and energy needs increase that further as one can easily project, by the time we've built those 1500 nuclear plants we'll need to build another 1500 all over again (or, more likely, we'll still be burning coal for the remainder). And then there's the rest of the world.

Advanced reactors could be a real solution - but you have to keep in mind the scale, which is at least as much a problem for nuclear power as it is for anything else.


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 23 Jan 06

Arthur,

Your info on the Generation III+ reactors matches what I recall as to their design.

As far as the trust issue goes, you can also mark the recent Davis-Besse vessel hole problem as a black mark, although this wasn’t really hidden from the public. (I have no insider knowledge to impart on it, beyond a brief conservation with a DB employee about the effect of the hole, which likely wouldn’t have been catastrophic in the Chernobyl sense. The plant was designed for an even bigger hole.) I wouldn’t lean much on the 1959 incident as a current trust example – I know nothing about it, but there was a whole different regulatory scheme and government/public attitude in place. Those were the days when we were still talking about using A-bombs to build dams, too. I know the Fermi 1 problems with a liquid sodium reactor in the mid-1960’s were also considered significant, but again my knowledge of that is limited. The SL-1 event in Idaho at a naval research reactor in the early 1960s was another fascinating case of the early years of nuclear fun – it is discussed in my book to some extent. There’s also been a problem in that some of the most significant rad release offenders thru the years have been government sites originally tied to bomb production, such as Hanford, Wash. These again fall under a different regulatory scheme than commercial reactors.

Regarding the invisibility of radiation – that is true, but it is also very easy to detect it with simple equipment, unlike some of our chemical problems like dioxin. (There’s a discussion on radiation basics in my book as well. There are some very basic misconceptions about amounts and danger – it’s not nerve gas where a tiny bit can kill you. More like aspirin – a huge overdose is bad, long term chronic use can be bad, a bit here and there seems to be okay. This lack of understanding greatly hampers debate, as I’ve discussed before.) Incidentally, there were a number of years where my job included looking at the periodic NRC reportsto Congress of all radiation incidents, and the vast majority of these took place in the non-power sector. Typically, there were mistakes in medical dosages, and occaisional x-ray sources being poorly handled during shipment.

I’ve never seen anything on the 5 – 250 plan Rektide mentioned, though I won’t dispute the industry is hoping when it builds a new reactor under the streamlined process it hopes the lawsuits really are significantly reduced. (They aren’t eliminated however. This is good as sometimes there’s a good reason for a lawsuit.)

Regarding the stats on future energy growth – given the fact there are 103 operating reactors producing 20% of our electricity supply right now, your numbers don’t sound unreasonable (I’m not pulling out my calculator, anyway). Neither does the high growth rate you propose (unless we take significant steps to get a handle on it, which should be our highest energy priority in my opinion.) Interestingly enough, as my book notes, nuclear power plants as of the mid-1980’s were already producing more electricity (at 15 – 20% of the US total) than the entire country was using when Eisenhower gave his “Atoms for Peace” speech in the early 1950s. Again, the first thing to do in addressing our energy problems is conservation. I imagine we’re all in agreement on that concept.

Keep thinking.

http://RadDecision.blogspot.com. PDF file for download available, or 15 minute online Episodes.


Posted by: James Aach on 23 Jan 06

Odd I could have sworn we had 127 nuke plants... guess some might be small or somwthing...

Anyway the 5 250 plan is fairly old and I only stumbled on it reading a nuke industry info thingy from a tech site somewhere.

Basicaly you dont need to replace all the energy all they wana do is triple nuke power output so that by the deadline nuke power accounts for 40% of our power instead of the current 20.

As for power needs.. yes they will be big but as factories are closing and energy intense indutries are shrinking and a few other indecators are good... it will work out.

It is EXPECTED to be 50% coal 40% nuke 10% others. It is HOPED that others will be bigger then 10% but who can tell.

The first 5 or whatever they now plan to start with are to test both the designs and the new process. Once the bugs are worked out mass production of the best designs begins.

Aso remember some of those plants will eb type 4 cogenerators making alot of h2 fuel.

One thing to remeber is far from all nuke plants are 1 gig output many current ones are alot less. Also not all the new designs are 1 gw either. As I remember one is 900 meg one is a bit over a gig and anouther is 1200 meg.

Also to muddy the water even more there is a difference betwwen nuke plant numbers and nuke reactor numbers and we dont know if they are taliing plant or reactor numbers.

In china as far as I know they have been doing 3 reactor and 5 reactor designs and plan some rather large gang reactor designs.

And this all leads up to fusion power that is indeed creeping closer to realty every year. FYI we already can build a fusion power plant we have been able to for quite some time... efficeincy is the problem. However as energy costs rise and as the process improves.... Last I read they needed a 3x improvement to make it cost effective... that was a good while ago and likely its alot closer now.


Posted by: wintermane on 23 Jan 06

the realistic situation is that free market power simply lacks the volition to drive us out of the coming energy debacle. thats why distributed is going to work so well, because it doesnt rely on collaboration, because it can just be installed without spine will motive or engineering to inspire it. its a delightful reactive solution. but i sincrely believe that ecnomically, an inspired government could easily outperform (aka outcost) these hodgepodge activities, whether the solution be alternatives or nuclear, and would suffer far less artifcats than the alterantive.

adam smith's invisible hand only gained popularity (and the worldly connections to become applicable) in conjunction with another idea; Mr. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The core idea is that survival, the fitness metric of systems is naturally self optimizing. Of course, not all systems take the most direct path towards optimization. Death and decay are a natural part of markets and are a natural part of evolution, merely a way to trim fat. We are most definately careening towards a point where more and more formerly middle class people cannot afford to heat their homes. The distributed growth of power will indeed move us-- almost as if, by an invisible hand-- to resurrect us from this folly, but how many are going to die first? How many will have their quality of life greviously impacted?

We're looking for a solution, but the only one necessary is will, is drive, is effort. This is simply a case of a shortcoming of the economic model we live by, and one we could steer clear of.

All its going to take is one major world power to change the game for everyone. I said before it would be one man to wake up one day and steer her company off to fix the problem, but I'm becoming more and more a disbeliever in the free economic model, in the power of companies to rise above short term profit-margin accounting. We need governments for the reason we created them, to carry us beyond simple free markets and to take advantage of the long term potentials we as individuals alone are unable to exploit. If one government stands up, takes responsibility and says "we will provide power to our people", all the rules have changed, the entire game needs to be rewritten. Energy welfare would be so much easier, so much cheaper to provide than social welfare, yet it would carry so many of the benefits.

Look at China trying to build a fusion reactor for 1/20 the price. Win or loose, if we gave them 20 tries I'm fairly certain they'd get further than us. I'm not a fan of fusion, I think the money would be better spent building advanced fision reactors, but principally the notion of a government going out of their way and just doing what needs to be done... that is amazing.

I heard one other thing from a friend last night in our nuclear discussion; he said Finland, who controls a very hearty % of the North sea oil reserves, has been saving something like 90% of the profits from the expedition in savings for the day when there is no more oil, save them for helping construct the new future. My only wish is they realized that the time is now, that the solution they need to research and develop needs to be started now.

Its the combined force of these two examples, the just-do-it will-force that governments can occasionally muster and the future-sighted investing power of governments that are going to change the game from people helping themselves to survive through this "crisis", to a world where people can flourish, a world of energy abundance.


wintermane, i presume the 3 reactor/4 reactor/5 reactor talk refers to the generation of the plant? I'm not sure what else it could be.


Posted by: rektide on 23 Jan 06

Reactors arw to a nuke plant what furnances are to a coal or gas powered plant. A plant may have 8 even 12 such furnaces and a nuke plant can and usualy does have more then one reactor.


Posted by: wintermane on 24 Jan 06

Someone asked the effect of taking lots of energy out of the climate with wind power. David Keith, et al, look at this at the National Academies site, The influence of large-scale wind power on global climate, http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/101/46/16115

There was some discussion of "it's not the technology, it's the governance". I'd be interested in finding out what you mean. For example, workers in nuclear power plants train a week a month? some large amount. Additionally, the current regulatory system for nuclear plants, but not for coal and oil and such, rewards early reporting of problems and penalizes failure to report problems.

Someone said that we can supply all our energy needs with solar using 1% of the Earth's land surface. I'd be interested in seeing the numbers, given the efficiency of photovoltaic panels (15%), the lack of a clean storage system, the distance of most large population centers from the equator, and so on. I'd also be interested in how much we would be paying for electricity. On the plus side, this would really encourage increased efficiency and conservation.

I'm puzzled why the solution is nuclear vs solar and wind, etc, rather than nuclear and solar and wind and efficiency and etc vs coal.

Also, when people talk about possible dangers from nuclear power, I'm curious what is an acceptable level of danger. We all agree that nuclear power has to overwhelmingly safer than oil use: the pollution or the accidents or the damage to agriculture and ecosystems or the carbon. Oil is presumably given a pass because we know so many nice people who use it, and some who may even overuse it slightly. It would personally be useful to me if people were to specify clearly: nuclear power must be 100 times safer than a comparable amount of oil, or 100,000 times safer than oil, or 100,000,000 times safer than oil.


Posted by: Karen Street on 24 Jan 06

Great link Ms. Street, thanks for the wind info.

I feel compelled to point out that there are 148,939,063 km square of land area on the planet earth. 1% is still a million square kilometers of solar.

I think generally the argument hasnt touched coal because everyone here has at least the understanding that coal is probably the most damaging. Hopefully by getting some serious debate about the alternatives, we can get a better mapping of what to use where and why instead of coal.

As for safety... its hard to quantify safety numerically. Are we talking risk of catastrophe, risk of catastrophe times probability of incidence, probability of incidence, net global damage for continued operation (aka pollution).... what is safe?

Safety, ofr myself, is nuclear reactors which require zero-intervention. I'd prefer to steer clear of nuclear reactions which would, left to its own devices, do very very very bad things. No men wielding axes to cut ropes please, no water well on a hill gravity feeding coolant to prevent catastrophic melt down, these still rely on admitantly well engineeringed but still insufficient circumstance. How safe is the plant if everyone walks away and every computer system is EM-pulsed into oblivion? I really think the determining factor is the inherent safety of the nuclear reaction taking place.

As a side benefit, once nuclear is really truly safe, we can really rethink what is required of governance. The whole regulation question becomes far less vital when its no longer such a viciously life threatening priority.


Posted by: rektide on 24 Jan 06



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