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No Free Lunch

2011 March 15
by Ian Welsh

I haven’t had much to say about the Japanese Tsunami and the nuclear mess there, but here’s the short and to the point.

First: the reactors in question were not properly built and tested.  It is very clear now that the Japanese nuclear industry, as with the American, has been cutting corners to save money.  Let this be a warning, there is no free lunch.  If you skimp on such features, it will inevitably come back to haunt you.  If you want to stop this sort of thing, start sending executives to jail for negligent homicide, otherwise expect it to continue.

Second: this is going to lead to a huge round of the stupids.  Contrary to what many on the left think, widescale solar is still not feasible, the production of large solar panels produces huge amounts of toxic byproducts.  So if Japan wants to go off nukes, they would most likely go off them to coal, and if you replace all those nukes with that much coal, it’s a complete environmental and health disaster, and a massive downshift in standard of living, to boot.

Third: Japan poured a pile of concrete in the last couple decades, including in the last 2 years.  They could have poured concrete over the backup generators in plants like this, instead of making roads to nowhere, but they didn’t.  Japan’s technocrats are, fundamentally, incompetent.  Perhaps not as incompetent as America’s, but in the same general boat, as are all the developed world’s technocrats.

The choice is being made, today, to deny, deny, deny reality.  The reality is that the energy bottleneck has to be dealt with.  And the reality is that the only technology ready right now, which can be scaled, which could tide us over the 20 years we need, is probably nuclear.  But the plants we have were designed not as civilian plants, but as dual use plants able to produce material for nuclear weapons.  They were deliberately designed to not be particularly safe and even the safety features they theoretically have, as with the Gulf disaster, have had corners cut so severely that they aren’t safe.

Nuclear power might be relatively safe, but not built by us, not by this society.  But the other options are disastrous as well.  As a practical matter, we are going to be moving more and move to coal, shale oil and tar sands oil.  And that economy is ugly as hell, and an environmental disaster.

I know a lot of my readers aren’t going to like this, and the anti-nukers are going to freak out in the comments thread, but this is where we are.

100 Responses
  1. Tom Hickey permalink
    March 15, 2011

    James Lovelock agrees. Without nuclear, humanity is toast. No way to ramp up other alternatives to carbon-based in time to avert disaster.

    Lovelock: ‘Only nuclear power can now halt global warming’

  2. March 16, 2011

    Exactly right. Maybe we will reach a technological state where we can all have our own complete reliable household renewable generating system and have complete sustainable energy liberty, but we aren’t there yet.

    We have to learn to develop the (social and engineering) infrastructure for resilient nuclear energy.

  3. Idiot permalink
    March 16, 2011

    I concur.

  4. guest permalink
    March 16, 2011

    Who’s going to freak out? This anti-nuker is an antinuker for all the reasons you just gave. And besides, what’s the point of buying 20 years time? What do you think will happen in those 20 years? We’ve had 40 years since the Arab embargo. Have we done anything about weaning ourselves off oil, besides switching over to SUVs so that the oil will run out faster? Have we done anything about overpopulation in the last 2 generations besides tripling the world population?

    You’re just talking about 20 years extra of nukes and fossil fuel burning time that will be wasted. Might as well face the music 20 years earlier. Then there will be that much less mess to clean up when the lights come back up.

  5. March 16, 2011

    You’re just talking about 20 years extra of nukes and fossil fuel burning time that will be wasted. Might as well face the music 20 years earlier. Then there will be that much less mess to clean up when the lights come back up.

    Time matters. The world population is reaching a plateau and technology on renewables has improved considerably even if it isn’t there yet. That 20 years could well be the time in which it might happen. Weaning off of oil will require replacement with something that the public will accept; the public may accept increases in efficiency, but not decreases in what people can do.

    If they had to accept that, they’d have preferred the apocalypse 20 years before now. Actually, some already do.

  6. Stormcrow permalink
    March 16, 2011

    The light will not come back up.

    Think for a bit about the last four thousand years. Technology versus the resources it consumed.

    If we crash, the rungs of the tech ladder we climbed 300 years ago: wood, easily refined copper and iron ores, almost everything else that the seventeenth century version of technical civilization consumed, will be either gone or unusable.

    So we will never be able to ascend that ladder a second time.

    Think about agricultural civilization pre-1750. Or, most places, pre-1900. Built on either serfdom or outright slavery because that was what efficient food production required.

    If you think the gulf between classes is outrageous now, just try things your way and wait a couple of generations. The underclass will have no rights whatsoever, and the upperclass will consume them, perhaps almost literally.

    We cannot afford to fuck this technical civilization up. We will never have a second chance.

    And your grandchildren will be literal rightless slaves, breaking themselves behind plows sunup to dusk every day of their miserable unlettered ignorant existence, burned out at 30 and dead by 50.

  7. guest permalink
    March 16, 2011

    “the public may accept increases in efficiency, but not decreases in what people can do.”

    Some might not “accept” it today. Not many will volunteer for conservation. But under fascism, volunteer will be used in the passive voice. But all those people who’ve been unemployed for 2 years aren’t exactly raising a ruckus. All those people living and dying in the streets the last 30 years have pretty much gone quietly into that shitty night. Lots of people have been quietly volunteered into accepting limits on what they can have or what they can do. No apocalypse, no riots, no strikes, no challenge to the ruling elite. That will just accelerate.

  8. March 16, 2011

    I’ve taken to calling it “nuclear deadlock” and “solar austerity.”

    I like some of the links Digby has dug up. There is reason to believe that, in the long term, you hominds do not need either fossil fuel or nuclear energy. But…HOW DO YOU GET THERE? Seriously, you-folk can’t even shut down your authoritarians. And somehow you are to transform the world’s economy? I think you’d better start praying, folks. You need a miracle; a change in your hearts.

    Croak!

  9. March 16, 2011

    But all those people who’ve been unemployed for 2 years aren’t exactly raising a ruckus. All those people living and dying in the streets the last 30 years have pretty much gone quietly into that shitty night. Lots of people have been quietly volunteered into accepting limits on what they can have or what they can do.

    These are by no means the bulk of the voters, nor is their plight at this moment primarily due to a natural limit having been reached, despite some people’s willingness to jump the gun on this. They’ve been impoverished instead through a purely arbitrary game of musical chairs as policy-makers run cruel simulations in real life.

  10. Ian Welsh permalink*
    March 16, 2011

    If you downshift now, which hundreds of millions of people are going to die?

  11. guest permalink
    March 16, 2011

    “The light will not come back up.”

    I don’t know if they will or they won’t. I’m sure a few thousand, maybe a couple million will survive even the most dire apocalypse we could imagine. I think their chances would be better without an extra 20 years of nuclear waste and disasters to deal with.

    I did not define the “light coming back up” to mean a technologically advanced society, as you seem to. It could mean a lot of things, but it doesn’t have to mean that for me. And since neither of us is likely to see that day, it’s kind of academic.

    I think it’s a bit presumptuous for you to decide that the only future of any value is one like the present. In case you hadn’t noticed, the vast majority of the world’s population has not benefited from technology. They are just as poor and almost as diseased and hungry as before. There are just a lot more of them. Pre 1750 civilization probably doesn’t look much worse to them. I wouldn’t want to live in such times any more than you would, but strangely, lots of poor people see value in their wretched lives. Discounting the worth of the lower classes is what the apex predators who rule us do when they steal our pensions or start wars. Try not to be like them. It is unworthy of any human being.

    And I’m sure there have been plenty of communities and eras in unrecorded history where there was peace, learning and prosperity. And just like Pax Americana, they were local and short-lived.

  12. guest permalink
    March 16, 2011

    “If you downshift now, which hundreds of millions of people are going to die?”

    I’d guess almost all of them/us. But I doubt the decision will be left to us.

  13. March 16, 2011

    I think it’s a bit presumptuous for you to decide that the only future of any value is one like the present. In case you hadn’t noticed, the vast majority of the world’s population has not benefited from technology. They are just as poor and almost as diseased and hungry as before.

    Clearly not true or it would have stymied their population growth. For one thing, no one dies of smallpox. No “almost as” diseased. They are less diseased.

    I don’t know if the future needs to be like the present. All I know is that it really is possible to measure, in certain dimensions, whether people’s lives are better or worse. And it takes energy to make lives better.

  14. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    March 16, 2011

    Agree 100% on nuclear energy. I also think we should be throwing everything we have into basic physics research, in hopes of eventually being able to to controlled fusion and matter-antimatter. That would make the whole solar line of research moot. But we choose lawyers and sophists as our leaders, who preach “science education” but know nothing of it, nor care to.

    Speaking of solar, do we have evidence one way or the other of how many people the geo-thermal energy sources could support in the best-case scenario? Even if we could convert 100% of the sun’s energy to a usable form, how much of the earth’s surface would we need to cover in solar panels to support a 6+ billion population? Are there even enough raw materials to do it?

  15. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    March 16, 2011

    Sorry for the double post, but I just wanted to observe that the blithe nihilism displayed by guest above isn’t even that unusual. “The world is overpopulated” is so embedded into our culture that our ghastly elites, who would gladly have say about 5.5 billion people die to be spared their unpleasant odor, don’t even need to propagandize on it.

  16. croghan27 permalink
    March 16, 2011

    “Contrary to what many on the left think, widescale solar is still not feasible, the production of large solar panels produces huge amounts of toxic byproducts.”

    Glad you see it as a political/economic problem, not a technical/nuclear one. But you are calling for a technical solution to what you point out is not a scientific trouble.

    While there are many drawbacks and pain involved in change, of any kind – but if, as you illustrate, 1/10 of the resources were spent in a search for alternative energy sources (or even better – ways to reduce energy consumption) than have been spent, as you say, pouring cement, this pain would be far less than now being experienced in Japan. U-238 has a half life of 80 million years, what is the half life of those toxic elements of solar panels?

    You are correct – there is no free lunch, but it becoming clear that dinner cooked on a nuclear stove is expensive indeed – prohibitively so.

    No one I know, not the most adamantly opposed to nukes, is suggesting that they all be immediately shut down – and damn the consequences … and some reactors are beneficial – like the truncated MAPLE reactors in Chalk River that are designed to produce medical isotopes.

    As they age and become un-operable (more so than now) shut them down – with no new ones build in the last 20 years or so, it will not be long.

  17. tooearly permalink
    March 16, 2011

    not safe, not going to be safe (as you yourself admit), and not economical if true costs are included. what is it you like about it?

  18. March 16, 2011

    [T]his is going to lead to a huge round of the stupids. Contrary to what many on the left think, widescale solar is still not feasible, the production of large solar panels produces huge amounts of toxic byproducts. So if Japan wants to go off nukes, they would most likely go off them to coal, and if you replace all those nukes with that much coal, it’s a complete environmental and health disaster, and a massive downshift in standard of living, to boot.

    False choice. No one thing is going to replace nuclear power, or make up our other energy deficits. Nuclear power won’t be sufficient to meet all electrical energy needs, for that matter. On the West Coast, we’ve largely avoided the need for new power plants despite a rapidly expanding population. In contrast, there are places on the East Coast that still need more energy. The difference is that in the West, states learned to emphasize conservation.

    Nor is all solar energy derived from semiconductors. Solar can be used to heat water, which is one of the primary uses for electricity in homes.

    None of those things will get us all the power we need, either, but if we or Japan had been doing everything we could to conserve and to find alternate sources of energy, we and they would both be in a lot better shape right now. Instead, those priorities seem to have been right up there with making sure the nuke plants were safe.

  19. Greg permalink
    March 16, 2011

    No freaking from me. We need nuclear power, but as you say, we need better nuclear power.

  20. soullite permalink
    March 16, 2011

    You know, the earth puts out a whole shitload of power, most of which it collects directly from the sun to keep its core active. If we can’t find some way to make use of that that goes beyond putting up a few windmills and some waterwheels, then we deserve to go extinct because we are completely fucking retarded.

  21. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 16, 2011

    The discussion should be framed as follows:

    1.) What has happened, what is happening, and what will most likely happen considering the current system under which we operate.

    2.) What should have happened, what should happen now, and what should happen in the future.

    The following is the hinge of Ian’s argument, and I accept that hinge as a precursor to what will result from all of this. Except, I call it a system rather than a society.

    Nuclear power might be relatively safe, but not built by us, not by this society.

    I agree with that assessment as the most probable outcome, but I don’t support it. Strike the most probable outcome. Further reliance on coal and natural gas will be the most probable outcome, but the choices here are likened to being beheaded versus electrocuted. Either way, the end result is the same. As guest said, if the system doesn’t change, 20 years versus 10 years versus 100 years doesn’t mean jack shit. This system will not provide a solution to itself. This system must be torn asunder and replaced with one that lives by the following pledge as its benchmark for all it does.

    I pledge allegiance to the earth and all the life which it supports. One planet in our care, irreplaceable, with sustenance and respect for all.

    Technology begets technology begets technology….on and on and on, the hole keeps getting deeper….deeper and deeper we plunge, each time the risks keep getting higher and higher. It’s metaphorically like base jumping. In the beginning, you have two jars, one representing experience and the other luck. The luck jar is full and the experience jar empty when you begin, but as you proceed the experience jar begins to fill and the luck jar begins to empty, and so it’s just a matter of time until the luck jar runs empty and your experience can no longer save you. The piper must be paid, and it will be painful.

  22. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 16, 2011

    If you downshift now, which hundreds of millions of people are going to die?

    Humankind will not downshift, it will proceed full steam ahead. That’s what has happened, what is happening and what will happen, but Humankind has limits, even though it believes it does not. Humankind is fast approaching those limits…in fact, it’s going to smash right into those limits, and not only will an involuntary downshift take place, but the vehicle humankind is driving will be obliterated and all its inhabitants.

    Such is the web that humankind has woven. Here’s our situation, metaphorically.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAULUqmwN04&feature=related

  23. Scott Free permalink
    March 16, 2011

    I don’t see any data supporting the assumption that solar panel manufacture and deployment will create insurmountable impacts. A quick Google search came up with following links none of which indicate serious life-cycle impact problems. If we jump into massive nuclear as a 20-year interim experience suggests that 40-60 years from now we will be struggling with the disposal of all those investments. It may be that new designs are safe but has that been shown in industrial scale deployment? How long will such demonstration take? How many billions will it take to deploy all that nuclear and what would the comparable impact be of similar spending on efficiency and electric cars?

    Links showing manageable solar environmental impact:

    http://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/HWY/OIPP/docs/solar_panel_lifecycle.pdf?ga=t

    http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/technology_and_impacts/impacts/environmental-impacts-of.html

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080225090826.htm

    http://www.epriweb.com/public/000000000001000095.pdf

  24. tBoy permalink
    March 16, 2011

    How’s about we quit subsidizing energy in all of its forms and see what happens? And that especially includes environmental damage.

    Let electricity hit $0.30/kw & higher and watch the shelves empty of caulk & power strips. Most people can decrease household/business consumption by 25% easy with about $100.00 one time cost and an easy weekend.

  25. Notorious P.A.T. permalink
    March 16, 2011

    “the Japanese nuclear industry, as with the American”

    No difference:

    http://markcrispinmiller.com/2011/03/obamas-letting-tokyo-electric-build-us-nuclear-plants-greg-palast/

    “how much of the earth’s surface would we need to cover in solar panels to support a 6+ billion population? ”

    Not that much. An area the size of a few big cities could power the world. By most estimates, land area used by solar plants is more efficient than that used by coal plants. And like someone already mentioned, solar power to heat water would be a big help. In fact we don’t need to build solar cells, we just need good-sized mirrors to focus sunlight on a fluid medium and use the resulting steam to spin a turbine. Nothing too complicated there; we just need the political will to build them.

    Behold the future!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_Two

  26. Notorious P.A.T. permalink
    March 16, 2011

    Remember that a nuclear power plant simply uses a fission reaction to heat water into steam that spins a turbine. It’s not worlds apart from solar heat power plants.

  27. StewartM permalink
    March 16, 2011

    I was reminded of what Robert Heilbronner wrote in An Inquiry into the Human Prospect “Is there hope for mankind?” He wrote that, if you meant that humankind could make the necessary transitions without a lot of totally unnecessary suffering and grief, “No, there is no such hope”.

    Of course, the Era of Reagan exacerbated everything and means that we will probably have a hard crash instead of a softer one. Jimmy Carter, for all his flaws, might have pioneered the US and the world towards different, and better, course 30 years ago if he had won in 1980.

    Politicians don’t understand science. They only see technology, and think that they are the same. They (and in fact the general public) still resists the outlook, method, and ethos of science. Our politics would be so much the better if all politicians were required to state along with their positions *realistic conditions under which they themselves would admit they were wrong if met*, conditions by which their “test” had failed. If you want to know why politics seems so divorced from reality nowadays, it’s because the mindset of most politicians (particularly conservative ones) consists of dogs forever chasing their own tails. It’s anti-empirical, circular, logic at work.

    StewartM

  28. Bolo permalink
    March 16, 2011

    I believe that Ian is right. Nuclear power can be done safely, but its largely a matter of design choices. Our current societies are largely incapable of meeting those design criteria due to corruption, corner-cutting, etc.

    I think we also suffer from a failure of imagination. The only two major visions for the future of humanity on Earth that I encounter from people are:

    (1) Austerity, budget cuts, and increasing servitude in both public and private life imposed from the top via governmental and economic authoritarians because we have been profligate and living beyond our means and must be disciplined–and this course of action is determined to be valid according to a hugely subjective set of rules we have developed for our monetary and economic systems. This view considers money and debt to be the problem and emphasizes the immorality of spending too much. It seeks to keep people in economic slavery to cram down on our resource consumption in order to solve our real (physical) problems.

    (2) Voluntary reductions in material wealth, standards of living, and technological progress that are justified because we have been profligate and living beyond our means and must engage in self-sacrifice to atone for our errors–and this is determined to be valid according to hugely subjective definitions of what is a “sustainable” human life. This view considers resources and human population to be the major variables of concern and advocates that they be brought into alignment, usually through a reduction of population or a reduction in the standard of living. It advocates keeping people in a form of resource slavery (current generation decides to reduce the wealth of future generations) to solve our real problems.

    I believe these two solutions are indistinguishable in the long run (either one eventually bleeds into the other) and, frankly, both of them suck. Their wide adoption will bring us into a new Dark Age.

    (Note: There’s also a third view (3) that there are no problems, but that’s getting rarer these days.)

  29. John B. permalink
    March 16, 2011

    Bolo, it seems to me that both of those views are top down views perpetrated by the elites (wealthy and powerful) towards the masses (poor and vulnerable.) The totally ironic thing is that it has been the elites that have been profligate and out of control. They want the poor to take the blame and leave them with their ill-gotten wealth intact. Somehow I don’t think that plan is a good one…

  30. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 16, 2011

    Some threads deserve a picture, because a picture is worth a thousand words. Here’s a picture worthy of this thread.

    http://www.blogcdn.com/www.politicsdaily.com/media/2010/02/three-mile-island-jill-lawrence-picnic-345w.jpg

    Aren’t the lunchers positively radiant?

  31. March 16, 2011

    Coming at this from a production standpoint is important, but only half the argument.

    My family is in Japan, and I am getting very good round the clock updates on what’s going on (even the most modest measures) and I’m watching NHK in Japanese. An interesting fact has surfaced: Japan has been running rolling blackouts in and around the affected region. They were originally slated to be 3 hours long, but many of the periods are shorter because Japanese have voluntarily been austere in energy usage.

    The key is not more production. The key is less consumption. Talk about a false choice? Build more plants or society fails. No, that’s not it. Replace your bulbs with incandescent globes, which use 75% less electricity than regular lights and last longer. That’s just one simple measure, and it would lower household consumption considerably.

    If we are looking for false choices, the false choice is “what type of plant do we build?” We should instead ask “how do we use less of what we’re producing now?” and ending subsidies and pricing power according to its true worth is a first step in consuming less.

  32. tBoy permalink
    March 16, 2011

    HumbleAuthor has it right. People didn’t used to heat houses – they heated rooms. Start charging what it is worth with no chance of recourse and watch us drop consumption 30% in 36 months. I know dozens of people with a house 30% too large so that their spawn can come visit once or twice a year for 4 days. The empty wing of the houses are still conditioned year ’round.

    Here in south central Louisiana I can see from my window a newly-minted limestone side road being populated with the lowest quality mobile homes on the market. The homeowners are orienting their trailers with the long sides east-west. There is not a tree in sight. Their heating and cooling bills will easily be twice what they would have been if these trailers had been oriented 90 degrees from present. Bet if they were getting hit with $1200.00/month bills in August as opposed to $600.00 bills they would learn real fast what people knew 40 years ago.

    Not only does honest pricing buy us some breathing room but it sets the agenda.

  33. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 16, 2011

    Yes, but the future of energy, if there is a future, in order to be sustainable, cannot be centrally produced and distributed.

    Hey, I have it. This should make all parties happy. It’s a decentralized solution that’s a cross between Hoover’s a chicken in every pot and Clinton’s it takes a village. Let’s call it a Nuke In Every Village. Obama can use it as a campaign slogan for his 2012 reelection bid.

    National Geographic says the technology’s here, we just have to have the political will to implement it. Of course, each village cannot receive their nuke in a manger until all Muslims have been cleared out. Salvation is at hand.

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/big-idea/08/mini-nukes

    They’d be carbon free, relatively cheap, and according to the industry, inherently safe. An underground mini-nuke could power a village.

  34. Ian Welsh permalink*
    March 16, 2011

    It seems unlikely Japan or the US is going to start a trade war over solar panels.

    Solar panel production is two-thirds cheaper if you dump the toxic waste.

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-11128_3-9889848-54.html

    And that’s before we get to the nasty stuff in the panels themselves.

    I do agree that going at the demand end is important, which is why part of my suggested stimulus package was to refit every building in America to be at least energy neutral.

  35. BC Nurse Prof permalink
    March 16, 2011

    Yes, nuclear power can be done safely. BUT, the results cannot be stored safely for the amount of time required.

    Here’s what Dimitri Orlov is saying today:

    “I am particularly concerned about all the radioactive and toxic installations, stockpiles and dumps. Future generations are unlikely to be able to control them, especially if global warming puts them underwater. There is enough of this muck sitting around to kill off most of us. There are abandoned mine sites at which, soon after the bulldozers and the excavators stop running, toxic tailings and the contents of settling ponds will flow into and poison the waters of major rivers, making their flood plains and estuaries uninhabitable for many centuries. Many nuclear power plants have been built near coastlines, for access to ocean water for cooling. These will be at risk of inundation due to extreme weather events and rising sea levels caused by global warming. At many nuclear power stations, spent fuel rods are stored in a pool right at the reactor site, BECAUSE THE SEARCH FOR A MORE PERMANENT STORAGE PLACE HAS BEEN MIRED IN POLITICS. There are surely better places to store them than next to population centers and bodies of water. Nuclear reservations — sites that have been permanently contaminated in the process of manufacturing nuclear weapons — should be marked with sufficiently large, durable and frightening obelisks to warn off travelers long after all memory of their builders has faded away.” (my caps)

    http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/

    Stoneleigh (Nicole Foss) (theautomaticearth.blogspot.com) who is an expert in nuclear safety, also rejects the idea that nuclear power can save us. It’s not the nuclear power, or the building of the plants, it’s the nuclear waste. This is not an option.

  36. March 16, 2011

    HumbleAuthor writes:

    Talk about a false choice? Build more plants or society fails. No, that’s not it. Replace your bulbs with incandescent globes, which use 75% less electricity than regular lights and last longer. That’s just one simple measure, and it would lower household consumption considerably.

    I think you mean to “replace your [incandescent] bulbs with compact flourescents”. To my way of thinking, any light that’s in or near the ceiling should be as efficient as possible if you live where I do, and every light should be as efficient as possible if you’re using air conditioning.

    Every watt of power use that’s saved results in something like one and a half to two watts of electricity production. It also saves considerably more than two watts’ worth of whatever energy you use to generate that power. That in itself makes conservation more efficient than production.

    I’m sure we’ll need more production. Populations are growing just about everywhere. But we went through tremendous population growth up here in the Northwest without putting more power plants online. We’ve seemingly reached the end of that string now, with the new wind farms and the upgrades at Grand Coulee, but we were going to build eight nuke plants when I first moved into this area in the late ’70s. Instead, we built two and conserved enough to do without the rest.

    If we can do that here, you can do that just about anywhere else.

  37. Ian Welsh permalink*
    March 16, 2011

    Japan is already very efficient. They could be more efficient, sure, but they are far more efficient than America.

    http://www.policyinnovations.org/ideas/briefings/data/000102

    Nor do Japanese have large inefficient homes situated the wrong way, they pretty much don’t even use air conditioning most of the time in the very hot summers.

    Japan cannot easily shift down, they shifted down after the oil spikes of the 70s, which caused problems.

    Don’t mistake American for Japan, they aren’t the same thing.

    In the current world, all 1st world nations are trending towards some combination of China or Saudi Arabia, because those are the two “profitable” models. I don’t think Japan wants to fall to a Chinese standard of living. But they will, if they don’t get their act together after this.

    You cannot maintain anything like the current world system, and avoid this, it is not possible.

  38. March 16, 2011

    Re: My last comment – that was four plants out of five that we did without here. Oops. Or, should I say, W[oo]PPS.

  39. March 16, 2011

    I always find the waste argument, though it is probably the strongest antinuke argument, to be a red herring. Yes, the issue is mired in politics, but there are technical solutions to the waste problem too—which we don’t implement due to the miredness in politics.

    Demand reduction through exposure to the Real Price will simply exacerbate economic inequality; the demand drop from the poor will lower the price which will instigate further consumption by the price insensitive and so on and so forth. We need other ways—ie, via policy—to reduce demand. That is the stumbling block because no one in the USA in particular really wants to reduce the demand for energy.

    Like I said, a lot of people, doomers and leftists in particular, tend to underestimate the extent to which even people who look like they have nothing to lose actually still have something to lose…

  40. March 16, 2011

    Ian Welsh writes:

    Nor do Japanese have large inefficient homes situated the wrong way, they pretty much don’t even use air conditioning most of the time in the very hot summers.

    Nor do they have a smart electrical grid, energy self-sufficient buildings, or any one of a number of other innovations that have become viable (or at least, potentially viable) since then. According to that link you provided, they stopped subsidizing solar energy for homeowners back in 2006. Without that subsidy, it’s tough for folks to save up that much money to invest in one – they cost about as much as a motorcycle or a car, and it takes decades before they’ve paid for themselves. Just like conservation, energy generated where it’s needed has a built-in efficiency gain, because it doesn’t have to be delivered.

    It’s going to take more than doing one thing. There are a lot of different things that have to be done, some big, some small.

    I’m sure they’ve wrung just about all the inefficiency out of their system in the old way. But, as that link noted, it’s hard to change a policy when it’s been successful. That’s the challenge that they’ll have to face.

  41. March 16, 2011

    Cujo359,

    Your link contradicts your earlier claim. You claimed that the other nuke plants weren’t built because your area conserved enough energy to do without them but, the link you provided that shows the picture of the one that was built clearly states that the others weren’t built because of massive costs overruns not conservation efforts.

  42. March 16, 2011

    No, ks, what I was saying was that we didn’t build the plants, and used conservation instead. I didn’t attempt to explain why the plants weren’t built. They were, in fact, terminated because of the cost overruns.

    Sorry if that wasn’t clear. I was trying to simplify the narrative, and the cost overruns seemed somewhat irrelevant to the idea that we learned to get along without them.

  43. David Kowalski permalink
    March 16, 2011

    NJ utilities have spent a fortuene criss-crossing suburban NJ with mega sized electrical transmission towers designed to bring in electricity from Ohio. The last regional balack out took everything to Cleveland so this doesn’t seem like a bright idea. It is being rammed trhough by a regional powere group over the wishes of experts and residents but with the backing of politicians from both parties. The grid produces no electricity. It scars the landscape. It conserves nothing and in fact used a lot of resources to build. But it does, by law, pay utilities a 1% higher rate of return than their other investments.

    Similar incentives to conserve (and eliminate subsidies for alleged backup) would have done a lot more and but more local people to work.

    Personally, I think these wires, at least 10 times the size of ordinary ones, are dangerous. They skim over the edge of pools and come dangerously close to houses and businesses. In any case, they are hardly the best use. Change the incentive, change the result.

  44. March 16, 2011

    Ok Cujo, I now see what you’re saying.

  45. StewartM permalink
    March 16, 2011

    Doing some thinking out loud online:

    Solar panel production is two-thirds cheaper if you dump the toxic waste.

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-11128_3-9889848-54.html

    SiCl4 + 2 H2O → SiO2 + 4 HCl

    So why aren’t they simply reacting said waste with water to form dilute hydrochloric acid? Maybe the economics currently aren’t right for this, but why couldn’t that be recycled into use for at least some industrial applications? (Not to admit there may be cleanup problems)

    And that’s before we get to the nasty stuff in the panels themselves.

    The heavy metals problem is same problem that exists for batteries and many electronics. Not to trivialize the problem, but I’d say setting up a disposal/recycle stream for solar panels is a lot easier than all the NiCad batteries and electronic hardware that right now ends up in landfills.

    StewartM

  46. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 16, 2011

    Japan is a prime example of everything’s that’s wrong with this system. There are approximately 100 million people situated on that small Island chain living a highly materialistic lifestyle of consumerism. Many of its natural resources have to be imported since they are not indigenous to the Island country.

    Oh, and Lovelock’s a hypocritical jackass. I can’t believe someone pointed out, as though it was a positive thing, that Lovelock thinks Nuclear is the way to go. If you know anything about Lovelock, he’s a Malthusian and believes we are already too far gone, so it’s ironically humorous that someone’s using him to support their argument for Nuclear.

  47. March 16, 2011

    Wind and solar don’t look like they have much downside, but i’m sure we’ll find out that they do have them. There’s no such thing as up without down.

    I’m not against nuclear. I am against nuclear power plants being built and operated by for-profit corporations. The stakes are way to fucking high to have people maximizing profit by cutting every corner they can find…but that can be said about numerous things, like drilling for oil off shore.

  48. March 16, 2011

    Until we start thinking about how we consume energy–housing and transportation–I agree with Ian: nuclear is the second best option. What I haven’t heard anyone address (besides here) is what we do in the meantime if we pull our nuclear reactors offline. Magical Gerbils on Perpetual Treadmills?

    Gonna need lots of gerbils…

  49. March 16, 2011

    I’ve never been against nuclear, I’ve always been against American or Russian/Soviet nuclear power, because, well, there’s a track record there to contend with. We just don’t have the regulatory environment to handle something that dangerous in this country. Russia these days doesn’t have much that you could even call regulation.

    Japan, I dunno. They seem to have cut corners in this case by using a General Electric design. (Whoops; there’s American nuclear power rearing its head again.) The reactors themselves have held up fairly well so far, but the blasted spent fuel storage area is outside the containment, which is a decision right up there with the bulkheads on the Titanic in the history of staggeringly bad engineering. You already mentioned putting the generators on low ground near the coast; yeesh.

    I agree with some of the other commenters that the real short term solution, such as it is, is going to have to come from conservation as much as anything. It’s not painless but it is remarkably doable, because we produce a ton of energy that we never actually use. Wasteful electrical grids are one, yes, but then you get into things like household waste, crop waste, stuff that can be slapped in an anaerobic digester and made into fuel. My city’s looking at going to city-wide composting to save landfill space, and then slap the compost into a digester to turn into gas that we can burn at a local power plant which is being converted to run on gas (after a lawsuit over how dirty it was on coal).

    This NYT piece was an eye-opener for me on how far you can go with that, if your society is willing to commit to actually using the energy we already generate and then usually throw in the trash: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/11/science/earth/11fossil.html

  50. alyosha permalink
    March 16, 2011

    I think nuclear power can be safer, and I think other cultures – quite possibly the Japanese – will be the ones to lead the way. With 55 reactors and 30 percent of their electricity supplied this way, and given that seismology augurs no abatement of earthquakes in the future, the Japanese have every incentive to make things safer.

    Not to discount the immense tragedy that’s unfolded, but it often takes engineering disasters, often on a huge scale, for people to learn what needs to go into version 2.0 of any technology, and get motivated to upgrade. The GE reactors at Fukushima date from the 1960s.

    Agree with those commenters upstream who state that there is no silver bullet – it’s going to take a variety of solutions, including reduced consumption, to make the transition from the current energy economy to the next one.

  51. March 16, 2011

    Larry Littlefield had a good comment here :http://www.r8ny.com/blog/larry_littlefield/i_didnt_know_you_couldnt_turn_it_off.html#comment-1496395 (and I referred to this site there).

    Forgive my technical ignorance, but I had no idea you couldn’t turn these things off too. Maybe before we resume building nuclear power plants we should come up with a solution for this.

  52. scruff permalink
    March 16, 2011

    Intellectually, I’d have to admit that there might be such a thing as safe nuclear power, but the context for the existence of such a thing would be so far away from what we’re living in right now that I think an admission like that only serves as a distraction to placate ourselves with.

    Ran Prieur said it well:

    Why do geeks love nuclear power? More precisely, using Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, why do people with high logical-mathematical intelligence like nuclear power so much more than people with high intelligence in other areas? Framed this way, it’s an easy question. In the world of logic and numbers and predictable machines, nuclear power is totally safe. Chernobyl doesn’t count because, for political reasons, the plant was not designed, regulated, or run correctly. Fukushima doesn’t count because, for political reasons, the plant was not built to withstand an 8.9 earthquake and tsunami. Nuclear power would be perfect if only you stinky primates would obey our beautiful science!

    He also links to a very good piece by Sharon Astyk, about planning for failure.

    @Lex:
    I believe that solar is facing a peak materials problem with regard to selenium as a vital and very limited component. However this idea is sitting in the back of my head with no citation tag on it, so… grain of salt.

    But the bigger issue about environmentally derived power sources (which we would eventually run into if we ramped up production on that infrastructure) is that every region from which we could draw renewable, environmentally produced power is already using that power for its own purposes – to produce the environment! Drawing power from the wind requires you to reduce the speed of the wind. It’s a tiny fraction of the wind right now. Drawing your power from the sun requires you to reduce the amount of sunlight going towards every other end that sunlight goes towards. Again, currently a tiny fraction. But take the long, sci-fi view and you’ll be able to envision a world in which every unit of power produced by the planet is captured for human use. And that is precisely the end we’d be aiming at once we head down that road. What is more important, sunlight you can actually walk around in or the energy that sunlight could produce? Because in our current society, the answer is the latter, and in the long run this society would have us all under artificial lighting indoors all the time while all the actual sunlight went into photovoltaics powering our fluorescent lighting because it would be more efficient.

    It doesn’t matter how green the technology is, how safe the plants or renewable the source. You can’t solve an energy problem in a society whose primary goal is to consume energy without limitation. There can be no such thing as a solution for a people who will not live responsibly. Until the cultural mindset is changed, where the energy comes from is irrelevant.

  53. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 17, 2011

    scruff, that was an excellent post, and you are the first to validate my thoughts about harnessing the sun and the wind and what that would mean for the rest of nature once it becomes scalable. Finally some sanity on this thread. I truly believe people are insane. Some of the comments and views here are literally insane, magical thinking.

    We simply cannot continue this way of existence, and yet the first thing Obama says once he is elected is that we will not apologize for our way of life. This way of existence is what has allowed for the exponential population explosion we have witnessed and are witnessing. Without this way of existence we wouldn’t be at nearly 7 billion people and counting. Considering the aforementioned, I agree with Malthus and Lovelock that there are too many people on the planet and a crash is forthcoming, but unlike them, I don’t believe population should be reduced to allow for the very same means of existence that led to this inevitability but with a greatly reduced, more manageable population. That’s a disgusting, highly elitist notion. Let me guess, the renowned scientists would be part of that population that’s allowed to survive, including the vaunted Nuclear Physicists. What bastards like that envision is a return to the days of Feudalism where there is a tiny elite and the rest are feudal serfs, all happy and wonderful in their cozy little paradise.

    I agree with Lovelock that it is too late. This system will not come down without a monumental global catastrophe….one this system will most likely precipitate, and one we may be in the midst of now.

  54. March 17, 2011

    I have a hunch those who declare nuclear power a must for now are wrong or very, very close to being wrong. I have friends and neighbors living entirely off the grid now and I can say I am constantly amazed at the “electric” quality of lifestyle they have. By any measure they have very nice homes, very comfortable with nearly all the gadgets you can name. They even have a well (which serves three houses with normal good pressure) which runs on one solar panel and a couple batteries in case of extended dark periods. Sure cooking and refrigeration are propane, they don’t own a microwave and AC is the one luxury they don’t have. But I suspect remedy’s for that are near if not already possible. India is now manufacturing air-compressed powered cars which also have AC. Just a mater of time before something like compressed air cools dwellings.

    WHen one begins to dig and find the fact Poke Berry dye can be grown everywhere, used to make solar panels… the argument that solar must be toxic too, falls flat quickly. Poke Berry is about as hearty a weed as there is…. organic solar is here now. It will revolutionize third world countries, it should revolutionize the rest of us before we join them at the bottom…. or fry ourselves all for naught.

  55. StewartM permalink
    March 17, 2011

    But take the long, sci-fi view and you’ll be able to envision a world in which every unit of power produced by the planet is captured for human use. What is more important, sunlight you can actually walk around in or the energy that sunlight could produce?

    Even with a *realistic* sci-fi view (not the ‘extrapolate to infinity’ one) humans would be run afoul of many more limits before we hit the one of all sunlight being captured for energy one.

    Humans, from hunter-gatherers onward, have always attempted to maximize their comfort and minimize effort. It’s in the nature of the beast. That does not necessarily mean that we are doomed to repeated cycles of boom-and-bust, however. Hunter-gatherer populations were (apparently) remarkably stable for millennia.

    What’s important, by inference, to achieve and maintain stability is a dependable and renewable energy source and egalitarian social relations.

    StewartM

  56. March 17, 2011

    “Why do geeks love nuclear power? More precisely, using Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, why do people with high logical-mathematical intelligence like nuclear power so much more than people with high intelligence in other areas? Framed this way, it’s an easy question. In the world of logic and numbers and predictable machines, nuclear power is totally safe. Chernobyl doesn’t count because, for political reasons, the plant was not designed, regulated, or run correctly. Fukushima doesn’t count because, for political reasons, the plant was not built to withstand an 8.9 earthquake and tsunami. Nuclear power would be perfect if only you stinky primates would obey our beautiful science!”

    I’m sorry but that’s a ridiculous quote. It’s a just a snide attack. “…love nuclear power…totally safe….perfect…” what nonsense.

  57. Julien permalink
    March 17, 2011

    The problem isn’t technological in nature, it’s politico-economic. Hence, the solution has to be politico-economic.

    If you managed to burn every single last molecule of fossil fuels on this planet and split every last atom of non-seawater Uranium, you would get 1.4 yottaJoules of energy. Once. The sun will kindly send us, free of charge, 2.7 yottaJoules of energy. Every year. For the next 4 to 5 billion years.

    Why hasn’t all the research, cleverness and human ingenuity that has been applied to extracting that very last drop of oil, that last puff of gas, not been applied to tapping that gusher more effectively? Because it’s not “economic” to do so.

    There’s the problem and as long as that fundamental disconnect between our method of resource allocation and the reality of existence persists, there is no solution. End of story.

    If humanity collectively realizes that thermodynamics doesn’t give a shit about monetary theory, Keynesianism or the Austrian school of economics, then we’ll survive as a species. If not, well, the cockroaches will get their chance to do better.

    Fix economics, fix the world.

  58. tBoy permalink
    March 17, 2011

    Still have a hard time understanding why my wife and I have a perfectly comfortable lifestyle with all of the electrical stuff we can use and run a home business. We use an average of 4.5 to 5.0KW/hr a day. My friends down the road have roughly the same lifestyle except they are not home nearly as much. They use on average about 35KW/hr per day per household.

    Our clothes are just a clean, our computers are on at least 14hr/day X 2, the full size Kenmore ‘fridge works great, our water pressure is same or higher, …

    If most people would perform a very simple thumbnail energy audit they’d find up to a third is simply wasted and could be conserved for about $100.00 one time cost and an easy weekend – no effort required and no lifestyle hit. The second third is more difficult and pricier. Chipping away at what remains is admittedly more difficult. A Kill-A-Watt can be had for less than $20.00 and often borrowed free from many libraries.

    I have a very hard time accepting anybody as an energy expert who is clueless on personal use. No different than accepting organic gardening advice from someone who has read about it but never done it.

  59. Notorious P.A.T. permalink
    March 17, 2011

    “solar is facing a peak materials problem with regard to selenium as a vital and very limited component”

    People, I’m trying to tell you that photovoltaic cells are not the sort of solar power our society should be looking at. They have a place, sure, but we can get most of our power needs met without them.

    The “sci-fi” view isn’t every inch of Earth covered with solar plants; it’s orbiting solar power collectors harvesting sunlight shooting off into nowhere and transmitting it down to Earth.

  60. March 17, 2011

    Japan earthquake: Japan warned over nuclear plants, WikiLeaks cables show
    Japan was warned more than two years ago by the international nuclear watchdog that its nuclear power plants were not capable of withstanding powerful earthquakes, leaked diplomatic cables reveal.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/wikileaks/8384059/Japan-earthquake-Japan-warned-over-nuclear-plants-WikiLeaks-cables-show.html

  61. scruff permalink
    March 17, 2011

    @StewartM:

    Even with a *realistic* sci-fi view (not the ‘extrapolate to infinity’ one) humans would be run afoul of many more limits before we hit the one of all sunlight being captured for energy one.

    Yes, my proposed sci-fi view is unrealistic and likely unachievable, but I was trying to illustrate how current cultural mindsets are aiming our society towards conditions we all know we don’t really want. And that’s really the problem I have with all of this; if the fundamentals mindsets are rotten, then no technology no matter how lovely will save us. The foundations have to change for anything to work in the long run.

    And there are limits we’d hit earlier, absolutely. But we hit those limits for the same reason we’d eventually hit the sci-fi ones, and depending upon what workarounds people can come up with, we can carry right on past those initial “limits” without seeing the flaw in our behaviors. The Dust Bowl being a good example in which bad agricultural practices allowed horrible soil erosion to occur; it *should* have been a wake-up-call, but instead we found a way to continue those same bad practices supported by fossil fuels.

    @ks:

    I’m sorry but that’s a ridiculous quote. It’s a just a snide attack. “…love nuclear power…totally safe….perfect…” what nonsense.

    If you haven’t been subjected to that kind of nonsense, then I feel glad for you that you run in smarter circles than I do. Obviously there are plenty of thoughtful people who aren’t championing nuclear blindly, but there is also many people who take kind of approach.

  62. Tilp permalink
    March 17, 2011

    The sun will kindly send us, free of charge, 2.7 yottaJoules of energy. Every year. For the next 4 to 5 billion years.

    The energy density sucks though. Last I checked a CSP facility in a favourable locale generates roughly 50W/m2 of reflector surface.

  63. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 18, 2011

    Well, that’s it then, there’s only one thing left to do. This:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5_0iZQ-TuA&feature=related

  64. Watson permalink
    March 18, 2011

    A 1999 Cornell University study put the earth’s optimal population at about two billion:

    “Democratically determined population-control practices and sound resource-management policies could have the planet’s 2 billion people thriving in harmony with the environment. Lacking these approaches … 12 billon miserable humans will suffer a difficult life on Earth by the year 2100.’”
    http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Sept99/sustainable_life.hrs.html

  65. Julien permalink
    March 18, 2011

    @Tilp:

    The energy density sucks though. Last I checked a CSP facility in a favourable locale generates roughly 50W/m2 of reflector surface.

    Yes it does. That’s the downside. But on the upside, you get a fully functional nuclear fusion reactor with 5 billion years of fuel, completely self-maintained and self-regulated, built nowhere near anyone, with no waste to deal with and no decommissioning costs, that produces more energy every second than our entire species can imagine using. Oh, and did I mention the whole package is already built-out, operational and has been field-tested for the previous 5 billion years? ;-)

    On a more serious note, I’m not questioning the difficulty of harnessing direct solar radiation (and it’s indirect variant, wind). There are some very significant engineering problems to be solved, especially at the scale we want it to have.

    But I’m arguing that the bottleneck isn’t technological or technical. It’s primarily economic. Change the incentives, the way the market values energy and everything else will flow out from that. Just look at how photovoltaic cell efficiency has been increased, how their build process has been made cheaper, their rare and/or toxic components replaced by plentiful/benign alternatives.

    I mean, super-deep sea drilling, horizontal drilling, supercritical carbon dioxide injection, arctic oil, tar sand separation and conversion, shale fracturing, coal-bed methane? That’s crack-addict behavior, a junkie-level energy and resourcefulness to get just a little more fossil fuel out, just one more technological innovation beyond what we have in order to score one more hit.

    Change the incentives and that mad desperation can make solar/wind work, I guarantee it, and faster than a lot of people believe is possible.

  66. jawbone permalink
    March 18, 2011

    Enter poleberry juice!

    A few years ago, a scientist was a guest on The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC, the NYC public radio station, who said that if every available roof surface in NYC were outfitted with the then relatively inefficient solar panels that not only would they supply all the electricity needed by NYC but would also supply the needs of NYC’s exurbia areas. That’s a lot of electricity.

    I’ve tried to find this program in WNYC’s archives, to no avail. I wrote an email and never got an answer. I would love it if any readers here heard that program, especially if they remember more of the content.

    But, to the point, scruff says using sunlight would remove that energy from the environment. However, if I understand things correctly, using the sunlight hitting rooftops would result mostly in less heat buildup on the roofs and perhaps the floor just below. In warm weather this would be beneficial, but there might be some lower heat retention in cold weather. On the whole, however, I don’t see a downside…. Other than 1) cost and 2) persuading our private property society to agree to sharing their rooftops.

    Lambert at Corrente posted a Qhick Hit about using pokeberry juice dye to improve efficiency of solar collectors.

    With their spin-off company FiberCell Inc., Wake Forest is now developing these fiber-based solar cells for the commercial market.

    So how does a fiber-based solar cell work?
    Made of millions of tiny, plastic cylinders or fibers that trap sunlight until it is absorbed, this configuration means that a fiber-based cell can collect light at any angle, from sunrise to sunset because there is much more surface area available.

    To manufacture these highly-efficient ‘hybrid’ cells, the plastic fibers are stamped onto plastic sheets and the absorber dye (this is where cheap and locally-grown pokeberries come in) is sprayed on. The sheets are flexible, which means that manufacturers can make them and ship them at a low cost to developing countries. Once there, local factories can spray the absorbent pokeberry dye on the cells.

    Sounds pretty exciting, but I’m not sure the article covers all the important materials needed for these flexible plastic panels.

    Looking at the production company’s web site, it appears more than plastic is indeed involved….

    I do however have the pokeberries right on my little lot — and they’re hard to get rid of, which I found to my dismay as I let a couple mature and go to seed before I knew what they were. The berries are striking.

  67. tBoy permalink
    March 18, 2011

    For a minute let’s forget about photovoltaics – how about solar sunspaces for home heating and solar water heaters. In reality the most efficient PVs are about 20 to 25% efficient. Solar water heaters are about 55% to 65% efficient. And water heating is about 10% of the average family’s utility bill.

    For people in the deep south and other areas where hard freezes are rare a batch water heater can be built for less than $100.00. By 3:00PM on a sunny day our batch heater water is about 135 F. In the summer more.

  68. Bob from Chile permalink
    March 18, 2011

    Sorry Ian, but what you say about the reactors not being built
    and tested is just wrong. The power station was designed to
    resist the maximum known earthquake in the area and it did
    resist earlier to something three times as powerful. There is
    no way to design for a 1/10000 yr event like this one, the strongest
    earthquake and tsunami to hit Japan in history and the 4th
    largest earthquake on record !

    Even then, the station passed with flying colors. The problems
    we are having are due to the fact that the devastation in the
    surroundings prevented help to be sent until now (e.g.,
    connecting to power lines, emergency generators). In
    a more normal accident, hundreds of diesel carts or
    fire trucks would have been available within hours. Here
    all emergency systems failed, plus no help was available
    for days. The station was left to fend for itself in a high
    emergency situation. Despite that, the radioactivity release
    is in the TMI range (a level 6 accident would be Chelyabinsk,
    with 80 tons of fissile material being spread in the atmosphere).

    Now that a power line has reached the station the situation will
    quickly improve. Simply restarting the passive cooling units
    and the SFP pumps will quickly bring the reactors to cold shutdown
    and safe status. Thanks to the rapid decay of the power output,
    every hour that passes decreases the risk.

  69. Duncan Hare permalink
    March 18, 2011

    Ian

    I believe you wrong for a number of reasons:

    1. Conservation is immediate and can curtail and possibly shrink energy needs.
    2. Public transportation will also shrink energy needs, as would bicycles.
    3. Providing Nuclear Waste disposal needs to be resolved before creating more nuclear waste.
    4. The construction time for nuclear is about as long as its alternatives.
    5. The full costs of Nuclear (mining, extraction, reactor, waster disposal and plant decommissioning) make the electricity generated more expensive than alternatives.
    6. Natural gas appears more of a better bridge to solar than nuclear due to the long nuclear construction lead times
    7. Either natural gas or nuclear must address its requirement for large amounts of very clean water, and the attendant heat pollution.

    It is impossible for the N American Economy to be sustained, and possibly the European economy. It is impossible for the balance of the people on the planet to achieve the same lifestyle as Europe or N America.

    Looking at the amount of energy required to grow food strongly suggests there will be a population crash this century.

    An interesting discussion involves suburbs, where there seems to be two possible extremes for the future. One is decay because of their high energy costs, the other is as a foundation for food production, as suburbs tend to be built an very good farmland, and are not yet used for food production.

  70. Ian Welsh permalink*
    March 18, 2011

    Japan is a much more energy efficient society than North America, Duncan, with high speed trains, mass transit, minimal suburbanization and so on.

  71. WJL permalink
    March 18, 2011

    All of the problems I’ve read in this thread related to population density, pollution and other human-related entropy can be solved by energy. With enough cheap energy, we can clean up just about any sort of problem generated by high population. Energy is now the crucial bottleneck that prevents us from moving forward on a myriad of fronts. The final answer most likely has to be fusion, and there are some promising approaches on that front; but until this problem is solved, it would be good to spend some money developing LFTR molten-salt Thorium fission reactors, which seem safer than current technologies and can get us to the fusion era.

  72. March 18, 2011

    Maybe…the way to proceed is for Japan to do whatever it can to get going again in the short term, and make a crash project of sustainability?

    In my other life, I’m an alternative energy researcher (daylighting) and, still, talk of just stopping the use of non-sustainable technologies gives me the grue. We have some very good technology, yes. But we aren’t ready to deploy them to replace all existing systems in a whole modern economy, and if we just stop using the systems have without replacements ready to hand, there will be vast human misery. In particular: (1) Photovoltaics are not the most best way of using solar energy for many purposes. (2) We are an urban world; a few people can live “off the grid,” but not whole cities. The attempt to force our populations to do would lead to mass death. (3) Our agriculture depends on both outside energy and chemical feedstocks from petroleum. (4) Sustainable energy for transportation has barely been addressed. (5) etc, etc, etc.

    However, if you hominds want to feed us corvids…

  73. dude permalink
    March 18, 2011

    I just thought I would jump in on one small point:

    “Japan has been running rolling blackouts in and around the affected region.”

    Japan–from Tokyo north–runs 60 Hz alternating current. West and South (to Kyoto and on to Kagoshima) it runs 50 Hz. The nation’s electrical grid is broken into two incompatible grids, so Kyoto (for example) can’t send power to Miyagi Prefecture for example. I find this utterly incredible. My wife (Japanese) says it is true. I wonder if building a lot of GE Mark I and II nuclear reactors had anything to do with it?

  74. S Brennan permalink
    March 19, 2011

    Ian,

    I’ve been offline for a week…great post!

  75. March 19, 2011

    Wherein progressives go all austerian TANSTAAFL…

    Bob Herbert speaks, you listen:


    …Building new plants, which the Obama administration favors, can be breathtakingly expensive and requires government loan guarantees. Banks are not lining up to lend money on their own for construction of the newest generation of Indian Points.

    In addition to the inherent risks with regard to safety and security, the nuclear industry has long been notorious for sky-high construction costs, feverish cost-overruns and projects that eventually are abandoned. The Union of Concerned Scientists, in a 2009 analysis of the costs associated with nuclear plant construction, said that once a plant came online it usually led to significant rate increases for customers:

    “Ratepayers bore well over $200 billion (in today’s dollars) in cost overruns for completed nuclear plants. In the 1990s, legislators and regulators also allowed utilities to recover most ‘stranded costs’ — the difference between utilities’ remaining investments in nuclear plants and the market value of those plants — as states issued billions of dollars in bonds backed by ratepayer charges to pay for utilities’ above-market investments.”

    The refrain here is familiar: “The total cost to ratepayers, taxpayers and shareholders stemming from cost overruns, canceled plants and stranded costs exceeded $300 billion in today’s dollars.”

    Nuclear power is hardly the pristine, economical, unambiguous answer to the nation’s energy needs and global warming concerns. It offers benefits and big-time shortcomings. Ultimately, the price may be much too high. 

    Unfortunately that was then, and this is now, when the bank$ters (GE Money Bank ring a bell?) own the Treasury and the government, and a lot of the worst nuclear industry gougers are now also financial industry gougers.

    It doesn’t help when progressives line up for the nuclear kool-aid, either.

    Ian, there are technological alternatives. The road to them will be difficult mostly because of human folly. But the simple matter of fact is that in the long run nuclear won’t work, and the fossil fuels will be gone.

  76. Carl permalink
    March 19, 2011

    –”I know a lot of my readers aren’t going to like this, and the anti-nukers are going to freak out in the comments thread, but this is where we are.” —

    Whatever their faults, you were clearly wrong about your opponents’ hysterical tendencies, Ian.

  77. March 19, 2011

    I’m slightly less than overjoyed that the road to renewable energy appears to be paved with a lot of plastic. If we’re going to run out of oil, then we’ll also run out of cheap, easy plastic. Yes, it can be made from biological feedstocks and this has been possible for nearly 100 years…but note that most of the current workings are from food crops. That butts us up against the same problem as ethanol, and, no, using the non-edible parts of corn is not a good solution because it means that those parts are not turned back into the soil. That means less organic matter in the soil and more petroleum products necessary to grow the next season’s corn.

    Of course the real problem in energy issues is political-economic. That’s been the problem since, what, 1976? The bigger problem is then that if we haven’t been able to address those in all this time, what are the chances that we’ll be addressing them tomorrow?

    I’ve read that we can theoretically replace our current energy needs through renewables, but our current needs don’t include all the manufacturing that’s been moved to China. Can China replace its needs through renewables? Currently, China’s exporting hundreds of tons of mercury (among other things) to the US via global air currents. Will we manufacture the bits needed for our glorious, renewable future in the most unrenewable and dirty manner possible? Will that make us feel better about ourselves through the miracle of externalizing negatives?

  78. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 19, 2011

    How many of you here, let me see a show of hands, are willing to volunteer to fly to Fukishima and lend a helping hand in stabilizing the situation, if it can be stabilized at this point by man-made forces, with the caveat that you are most certainly sacrificing your lives? No hands. That’s what I thought, and yet you’re asking some poor Japanese slobs to do that for you, because let’s face it, this is a global catastrophe, and you’re asking that some poor slobs do it in the future, as well, because you have said you support nuclear as a way to a greener future. Oh yeah, sure, you’ve levied your support with all kinds of disclaimers to protect your moral selves in the event of an “I told you so” moment, but just like collateral damage in war, you throw your support behind something you know this system will handle unwisely, and therefore, you immorally approve of, at least tacitly, the catastrophes unfolding now, and to unfold, in regards to nuclear power.

  79. Ian Welsh permalink*
    March 19, 2011

    There’s no free lunch. How many people does coal kill?

    http://www.ecomall.com/greenshopping/cleanair.htm

    Add up all the people killed by nukes or by coal in the last 50 years, and I’d be surprised if coal wasn’t the hands down winner.

    The damage is just spread out, rather than concentrated.

    There is no free lunch.

  80. Lex permalink
    March 19, 2011

    Fuck, dude, i’d do it and i don’t even necessarily support nuclear energy. Of course, given that my government pulled its people far away because of the threat even though the Japanese are supposed to be our allies and we absolutely must keep tens of thousands of troops on their territory i’m not exactly sure what your point is.

    Do i want to sacrifice myself for a corrupt company and a pretty corrupt government. No, but maybe that’s my duty since it was my country that built the corrupt government and calls it a shining beacon of democracy…except when the people democratically decide to ask us to leave and then it’s time to shut the fuck up and sit down like a good little client.

    So again, i’m not sure what your point is or why you’re asking for a show of hands on the internet except to make a rhetorical point that doesn’t make any sense.

    Oh, wait, i get it. Like so many others on the left, you want to leverage the fear generated by a tragedy for political ends. Now tell me how that’s significantly different than what Bush did after 9/11. Tell me how the left has a monopoly on rationality. Tell me how it’s not distasteful at best and disingenuous to its core.

  81. March 19, 2011

    The nation’s electrical grid is broken into two incompatible grids, so Kyoto (for example) can’t send power to Miyagi Prefecture for example. I find this utterly incredible. My wife (Japanese) says it is true.

    The Meiji government, presumably inspired by their predecessors the Shoguns (who were the ultimate Teabag conservatives) never bothered to mandate a uniform standard for electrical power. Two different power companies began offering AC at two different frequencies, and the rest is history.

  82. dude permalink
    March 19, 2011

    I wonder if the Meiji were either great believers in competition by having two compete for dominance (resulting in a stand-off) or if they were great believers in Solomonic-like compromise?

  83. beowulf permalink
    March 19, 2011

    “There is no way to design for a 1/10000 yr event like this one, the strongest
    earthquake and tsunami to hit Japan in history and the 4th
    largest earthquake on record !
    Even then, the station passed with flying colors. The problems
    we are having are due to the fact that the devastation in the
    surroundings prevented help to be sent until now (e.g.,
    connecting to power lines, emergency generators).”

    So engineers can’t design a reactor that will safely shut down even in the event of long-term loss of power to operate the coolant system?. Don’t tell Westinghouse that:

    This plant’s [AP600] passive systems use only natural forces – gravity, natural circulation, and compressed gas – simple physical principles we rely on every day. There are no pumps, fans, diesels, chillers, or other rotating machinery required for the safety systems. A few simple valves align the passive safety systems when they are automatically actuated. In most cases, these valves are “fail safe.” They require power to stay in their normal, closed position. Loss of power causes them to open into their safety alignment.
    http://mthink.com/utilities/knowledge/nuclear-power-poised-assume-larger-role-energy-production

    Ian, hope you’re able to check out the Imperial War Museum while you’re in London. When I was in London for a family trip as a kid, I went through with my sister, very cool place (even my sister was impressed). The IWR had (and I’m sure still does) replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy on display in the main gallery. I stress the word “replica”… while my sister and I were checking out the A-bombs, we overhead a little boy ask a fat man (ok his dad wasn’t fat, just kinda dumb) if those were the actual bombs the Americans dropped on Japan, and the dad said, “No these are copies, I think the real ones are in Washington”.

  84. S Brennan permalink
    March 20, 2011

    Once again, to make nuclear energy work:

    http://news.change.org/stories/thorium-nuclear-energys-clean-little-secret

  85. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 20, 2011

    Like so many others on the left, you want to leverage the fear generated by a tragedy for political ends.

    No, that’s not true…..about me, at least, although no doubt it applies to some. I believe that politics is now so ineffably corrupted that no positive outcome can be expected. Perhaps it was always this way, and I’m just more sensitized to the process at this point in my life, but either way, there does seem to be a quickening of everything, as of late, and I do believe that has to do with what Kurzweil describes as the Singularity. Everything’s happening at a quickening pace, the complexity of interconnectedness is increasing exponentially, and we have now reached a point where our mental paradigms and resultant perceptive models cannot provide proper perspective and/or solutions to the unceasing, myriad crises that this complexity is presenting, and will present.

    Considering what I have just described, I cannot support Nuclear Power, nor do I support Coal Power, because let’s face it, miners have, and still do to a lesser extent compared to the past, sacrifice their lives when they enter into that occupation. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, except to me and my own conscience, whether I support it or not. The cold, hard fact is that it’s what’s here, it’s what’s now and we are entering into uncharted territory with no map or compass in hand and the landscape is fraught with peril. Unfortunately, a quick glance at the luck jar shows it to be nearly empty, and as we avert our glance from the jar that gave so much, and stare into the abyss that fast approaches, a familiar melody plays in the background. Yes, indeed…..”Fuck, dude.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoBFhdeR9PE

  86. S Brennan permalink
    March 20, 2011

    Here, some folks intelligently discuss real solutions…

    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/4971

  87. March 20, 2011

    Perhaps not about you, but i can count on one hand the “analyses” of this situation that presents known facts, discusses all possible outcomes and ends with hope that those who are risking their lives find success. That wouldn’t preclude a discussion of whether nuclear energy is inherently unsafe. FTR, i agree with Ian. It will be inherently unsafe when operated by for-profit corporations because every investment in safety reduces profit. It would be nice to believe that it could be operated by governments as not-for-profit and be safe, but as there’s no dividing line between governments and corporations and governments tend to be as corrupt and inefficient as corporations, that’s not realistic either.

    That’s not what i’ve been reading. In fact, it doesn’t take much effort to find progressive blog posts plainly stating that the current fear must be leveraged for political ends. It’s much more difficult to find analyses that don’t assume worst-case scenarios (which is funny now that we’ve got a Libyan War on the table and in many cases the same writers are assuming best-case scenarios for that), and then twist them into a pre-conceived narrative.

    All this would be one thing if the situation were all human error based. Given that the situation was predicated by a massive natural disaster changes things; it doesn’t mean that no criticism of design, preparedness, etc. can be leveled at Tepco, Japan or the nuclear industry, but it does change things.

  88. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 20, 2011

    Yes, S. Brennan, that was an intelligent discussion, especially this lifted comment, which pretty much underscores the issue.

    dohboi on January 19, 2009 – 7:48pm Permalink | Subthread | Comments top

    The most promising thing to me about this technology is that it might be a way of relatively safely treating the nuclear waste we have already generated and more that we will inevitably generate from existing reactors. We owe it to any future generations to minimize the destructiveness of that toxic material to what ever degree we can.

    But that leads to the inevitable moral hazard–that we will latch onto this technology and pretend that it is ok to go on producing more to such waste.

    From a larger perspective, I think it is long since time for all of us, but especially those involved in research and development of energy sources, to think deeply about the consequences and purposes of providing more energy to a species that has proved itself (especially under Western ideologies, but often elsewhere to) to be enormously destructive of other species (driving them to extinction at something like 10,000 times the background rate, destructive of whole ecosystems (dead zones in the seas, rain forests annihilated…) and even destructive of the entire planet’s ability to sustain complex life forms.

    Can we guarantee that vast new sources of energy supplied to our destructive societies won’t be used for further, short-sighted destruction? Will electricity no longer be used to more and more effectively convince people to by lots of consumer products that they don’t need? Will this new energy no be used to further over-harvest already-threatened species? To transport, on purpose or by mistake, exotic species into areas that have no means of resisting their depredations? To enable developers to create further sprawling suburbs that gobble up farmlands and habitats?…

    If this isn’t a moment for general reflection on such issues, I don’t know what would be.

    By the way, did they ever hear back from Obama and Co.? I’m betting they didn’t. Case in point.

  89. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 20, 2011

    Holy Tomatoes, Batman, that link of S. Brennans is full of sane treasures…like this comment.

    Antius on January 20, 2009 – 5:25am Permalink | Subthread | Parent | Parent subthread | Comments top

    An excellent article and probably about the most promising alternative energy source that exists today. Failing the development of controlled nuclear fusion, thorium breeder reactors would appear to be almost as good in terms of fuel security and environmental impact. Unfortunately, the more useful an energy source is, the more that it permits the exploitation of other resources and thus damage to the environment. That is after all, exactly what harnessed energy sources are intended to do.

    This discussion brings us back to the problem that we live within perpetual growth machine, on a finite land space, with finite material and biological resources. We therefore face the problem that giving human beings a fantastic new energy source, would allow growth based economic systems to reap even more damage on the planet. This is a fundamental problem with any living system that grows within a finite environment. It can either choose to reach a stable state, or it can continue to grow until every resource is consumed and die off like bacteria in petri dish. Unfortunately, a cooperative Power Down or species-wide self-limitation would appear to be impossible in the present global political environment. The only way out of this paradox is for humanity to collectively agree to reduce population size (as China has taken steps towards achieving) and allow continued per capita economic growth. This would allow individual living standards to expand even as total GDP remained static. Gradual progression of technology, the development of compact agricultural systems, car-free cities, integrated waste management, etc, would allow environmental impact to gradually decline. Such a development would require the leadership of a body like the UN.

    Ultimately, growth would appear to be an endemic characteristic of all living species and is only held at bay by physical restraint. This does not bode well for a species that is limited to the surface of only one planet. For this reason I think that anyone within post-oil community that still clings to the idea of economic growth or even technological growth for humanity in the future, either hasn’t thought the problem through and is relying upon blind hope, or must be a space travel enthusiast.

  90. S Brennan permalink
    March 20, 2011

    The first nuclear era was dominated by uranium technology, a technology that was derived from military applications, and carried with it, rightly or wrongly, the taint of association with nuclear weapons. As it turned out, there was far more uranium available than Fermi or Wigner had originally feared, but other rationales propelled scientific interest in developing thorium fuel cycle reactors. First, Pu-239 was not a good fuel for most reactors. It failed to fission 1/3 of the time when it absorbed a neutron in a conventional Light Water Reactor (LWR). This led to the most difficult part of the problem of nuclear waste. Plutonium made excellent fuel for fast neutron reactors, but the fast neutron reactor that Fermi liked used dangerous liquid sodium as its coolant, and would pose a developmental challenge of enormous proportions.

    Advocates of the thorium fuel cycle point to its numerous advantages over the uranium-plutonium fuel cycle. B.D. Kuz’minov, and V.N. Manokhin, of the Russian Federation State Science Centre, Institute of Physics and Power Engineering at Obninsk, write:

    Adoption of the thorium fuel cycle would offer the following advantages:

    – Increased nuclear fuel resources thanks to the production of 233U from 232Th;

    – Significant reduction in demand for the enriched isotope 235U;

    – Very low (compared with the uranium-plutonium fuel cycle) production of long-lived radiotoxic wastes, including transuraniums, plutonium and transplutoniums;

    – Possibility of accelerating the burnup of plutonium without the need for recycling, i.e. rapid reduction of existing plutonium stocks;

    – Higher fuel burnup than in the uranium-plutonium cycle;

    – Low excess reactivity of the core with thorium-based fuel, and more favourable temperature and void reactivity coefficients; . . .

    Thorium could replace U-238 in conventional LWRs, and could be used to breed new nuclear fuel in specially modified LWRs. This technology was successfully tested in the Shippingport reactor during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

    WASH-1097 remains a good source of information on the thorium fuel cycle. In fact, some major recent studies of the thorium fuel cycle rely heavily on WASH-1097. A recent IAEA report on Thorium appears to have been prepared without overt reliance on WASH-1097.

    One of the first things physicists discovered about chain reactions was that slowing the neutrons involved in the process down, promoted the chain reaction. Kirk Sorensen discusses slow or thermal neutrons in one of his early posts.

    Under low energy neutron conditions, Th232 can be efficiently converted to U233. The conversion process works like this. Th232 absorbs a neutron and emits a beta ray. A neutron switches to being a proton and the atom is transformed into Protactinium 233. After a period averaging a little less than a month, Pa 233 emits a second beta ray and is transformed into U233. U233 is fissionable, and is a very good reactor fuel. When a U233 atom encounters a low energy neutron, chances are 9 out of 10 that it will fission.

    Since U233 produces an average of 2.4 neutrons every time it fissions, this means that each neutron that strikes U233 produces an average of 2.16 new neutrons. If you carefully control those neutrons, one neutron will continue the chain reaction. That leaves an average of 1.16 neutrons to generate new fuel.

    Unfortunately the fuel generation process cannot work with 100% efficiency. The leftover U-234 that was produced when U-233 absorbed a neutron and did not fission will sometimes absorb another neutron and become U-235. Xenon-135, an isotope that that is often produced after U-233 splits, is far more likely to capture neutrons than U233 or Th232. This makes Xenon-135 a fission poison. Because Xenon in a reactor builds up during a chain reaction, it tends to slow the nuclear process as the chain reaction continues. The presence of Xenon creates a control problem inside a reactor. Xenon also steals neutrons needed for the generation of new fuel.

    In conventional reactors that use solid fuel, Xenon is trapped inside the fuel, but in a fluid fuel Xenon is easy to remove because it is what is called a noble gas. A noble gas does not bond chemically with other substances, and can be bubbled out of fluids where it has been trapped. Getting Xenon 135 out of a reactor core makes generating new U233 from Th232 a whole lot easier.

    It is possible to bring about 1.08 neutrons into the thorium change process for every U-233 atom that splits. This means that reactors that use a thorium fuel cycle are not going to produce an excess of U-233, but if carefully designed, they can produce enough U233 that burnt U233 can be easily replaced. Thus a well designed thorium cycle reactor will generate its own fuel indefinitely.

    Research continues on a thorium cycle LWR fuel that would allow for the breeding of thorium in LWRs. There is however a problem which makes the LWR a less than ideal breeding environment for thorium. Elisabeth Huffer, Hervé Nifenecker, and Sylvain David note:

    Fission products are much more efficient in poisoning slow neutron reactors than fast neutron reactors. Thus, to maintain a low doubling time, neutron capture in the fission products and other elements of the structure and coolant have to be minimized.

    India has only a small uranium supply, but an enormous thorium reserve. Millions of tons of thorium ore lie on the surface of Indian beaches, waiting to be scooped up by front loaders and hauled away to potential thorium reactors for a song. (For those of you who are interested in the EROEI concept, the EROEI for the recovery of thorium from Indian beaches would be almost unbelievably high, and the energy extracted could power the Indian economy for thousands of years, potentially making India the richest nation in the world.)

    India has for 50 years been following a plan to gradually switch from uranium to thorium cycle reactors. That plan is expected to finally come to fruition by the end of the next decade. At that point India will begin the rapid construction of a fleet of thorium fuel cycle reactors.

    A commercial business, Thorium Power, Limited, continues research based on the Shippingport Reactor experiment. Thorium Power plans to offer a thorium cycle based nuclear fuel with a starting charge of enriched U-235 for modified LWRs. Thorium Power has sponsored Throium fuel research at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, and a Russian VVER has been used to conduct thorium cycle fuel experiments.

    Research on thorium cycle liquid fuel reactors is ongoing world-wide. The best-known effort is being performed in Grenoble, France at the Laboratoire de Physique Subatomique et de Cosmologie. The Reactor Physics Group there is the only one in the world that has the resources and backing needed to actually develop a fluid core thorium cycle reactor that can be commercialized. In terms of organization size, the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor research group is much smaller than would be required to sustain a full-scale rapid development of thorium cycle reactor technology. The LPSC group thus is working in a business as usual time frame, and has no urgent motivation to do otherwise. After all, 80% of French electricity already comes from nuclear power plants.

    Thorium fuel cycle research is also being carried on in the Netherlands, Japan, the Czech Republic. There is also presently a small-scale effort in the United States.

    Thorium is extremely abundant in the earth’s crust, which appears to contain somewhere around 120 trillion tons of it. In addition to 12% thorium monazite sands, found on Indian beaches and in other places, economically recoverable thorium is found virtually everywhere. For example, large-scale recovery of thorium from granite rocks is economically feasible with a very favorable EROEI. Significant recoverable amounts of thorium are present in mine tailings. These include the tailings of ancient tin mines, rare earth mine tailings, phosphate mine tailings and uranium mine tailings. In addition to the thorium present in mine tailings and in surface monazite sands, burning coal at the average 1000 MWe power plant produces about 13 tons of thorium per year. That thorium is recoverable from the power plant’s waste ash pile.

    One ton of thorium will produce nearly 1 GW of electricity for a year in an efficient thorium cycle reactor. Thus current coal energy technology throws away over 10 times the energy it produces as electricity. This is not the result of poor thermodynamic efficiency; it is the result of a failure to recognize and use the energy value of thorium. The amount of thorium present in surface mining coal waste is enormous and would provide all the power human society needs for thousands of years, without resorting to any special mining for thorium, or the use of any other form or energy recovery.

    Little attention is paid to the presence of thorium in mine tailings. In fact it would largely be passed over in silence except that radioactive gases from thorium are a health hazard for miners and ore processing workers.

    Thorium is present in phosphate fertilizers because fertilizer manufactures do not wish to pay the recovery price prior to distribution. Gypsum present in phosphate tailings is unusable in construction because of the presence of radioactive gasses associated with the thorium that is also present in the gypsum. Finally organic farmers use phosphate tailings to enrich their soil. This has the unfortunate side effect of releasing thorium into surface and subsurface waters, as well as leading to the potential contamination of organic crops with thorium and its various radioactive daughter products. Thus the waste of thorium present in phosphate tailings has environmental consequences.

    The world’s real thorium reserve is enormous, but also hugely underestimated. For example the USGS reports that the United States has a thorium reserve of 160,000 tons, with another 300,000 tons of possible thorium reserve. But Alex Gabbard estimates a reserve of over 300,000 tons of recoverable thorium in coal ash associated with power production in the United States alone.

    In 1969, WASH-1097 noted a report that had presented to President Johnson that estimated the United States thorium reserve at 3 billion tons that could be recovered for the price of $500 a pound – perhaps $3000 today. Lest this sound like an enormous amount of money to pay for thorium, consider that one pound of thorium contains the energy equivalent of 20 tons of coal, which would sell on the spot market for in mid-January for around $1500. The price of coal has been somewhat depressed by the economic down turn. Last year coal sold on the spot market for as much as $300 a ton, yielding a price for 20 tons of coal of $6000. How long would 3 billion tons last the United States? If all of the energy used in the United States were derived from thorium for the next two million years, there would be still several hundred thousand years of thorium left that could be recovered for the equivalent of $3000 a pound in January 2009 dollars.

    Nor would exhausting the USAEC’s 1969 estimated thorium reserve exhaust the American thorium supply. Even at average concentrations in the earth’s rocks, thorium can be recovered with a good EROEI, without making the cost of electricity impossibly expensive.

  91. Bob from Chile permalink
    March 20, 2011

    beowulf, the reactors were perfectly safely shut down
    after 9 seconds. You still have to get rid of residual heat
    no matter what. The reactors produce 5% of full power
    immediately after shutdown. This is 20MW of heat,
    declining to 0.2% of full power in a week.

    So, sorry but you misunderstand what Westinghouse is
    saying. You still need to cool the reactors. There are a
    number of systems to do so. In case all are lost, one would
    expect help in the form of external power, emergency
    services. Normally this is what would happen, but could
    not because of the outside situation.

    Now, breeders, that cool purely by convection, would not
    have this problem, but we are talking about the plant we
    have at hand here.

  92. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 20, 2011

    I encourage everyone to review the comments to S. Brennan’s linked article. It’s the most intelligent discussion about this issue I have seen anywhere. Some absolutely superb comments. I’m sure S. Brennan didn’t realize the enlightened comment discussion came with his Thorium Silver Bullet article, but that’s what makes serendipity so sweet, afterall.

  93. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 20, 2011

    Oh, and here’s an excellent documentary about the Chernobyl disaster. It should be required viewing. I highly recommend it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=yiCXb1Nhd1o

    Europe luckily (from that near empty luck jar) avoided nuclear annihilation from this one incident. How many more bullets can humankind dodge?

  94. S Brennan permalink
    March 20, 2011

    Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors

    An old idea in nuclear power gets reexamined

    Mighty thorium – The nearly perfect energy source nobody has heard of

    http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/science/stories/2010/03/07/thorium-art-gc67nvgb-1.html

    “The amount of thorium it would take to power my whole life is the size of a marble that would fit in my hand,” Sorensen said. “The amount of coal that would power my life would bury my yard to 30 or 40 feet.”

    The scientists who designed the first molten salt reactors at Oak Ridge were so far ahead of their time, Sorensen said, that “It’s like a little moment of the 21st century was plucked out and plunked into the ’50s.”

    So why aren’t there thorium reactors all over the country?

    Several nuclear scientists said the nation was simply too wedded to uranium when the Department of Energy cut funding to the Oak Ridge reactor research.

    “It was demonstrated in a couple of test reactors here that it works and it works well,” said Dan Ingersoll, senior program manager for nuclear technology programs at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

  95. Formerly T-Bear permalink
    March 22, 2011

    Some time ago, either the late 80′s or early 90′s there was a considered critique of thorium as a fuel, the memory does not serve up the details of the critique but rest assured they were substantially negative. This critique may have occurred in either “The New Yorker” or Scientific American” and the reporting was detailed and studied as well as well presented. It may have been that the operating temperatures involved were exceptional and nothing in existing technology was capable of withstanding the material demands encountered. Needless to say, no links are recalled to direct the reader’s attention. None-the-less the critique remains.

    A further exploration of nuclear power design, again at the nadir of nuclear power development occurring after Three Mile Island accident, proposed redesigning the nuclear power plant in such a manner that required active systems to be operating in order that power could be produced; without power enabling systems operating, the reactor reverted to dormancy without further intervention, akin to the dead-man’s leaver developed for rail transportation. The call then was for a new generation of nuclear plants to be designed and built incorporating these concepts. Seems none were built since TMI under these design concepts that I am aware of.

    Must agree with Ian’s proposition, there is an energy bottleneck that requires addressing, either by fossil fuels and their environmental costs or by nuclear with its environmental costs as a bridging source until alternative “green” energy sources can be installed and put to use in meeting the energy demands of a complex economy. Only by reducing the frivolous use of energy in economic terms can the pressure for “growth” be curtailed. Look where that suggestion got Jimmy Carter when he had the bully pulpit; the public is even less capable of obtaining a decision now.

  96. zhando permalink
    March 24, 2011

    Uhh.. Dual-use??? This is not true… Uranium has continued to be used because the business model of the nuclear industry depends on expensive solid uranium fuel assemblies. There’s also sizable profits in building expensive legacy Light Water Reactors.

    The future lies in liquid flouride thorium reactors or perhaps some form of integrated fast reactor like the Traveling Wave Reactor that Bill Gates is funding. Thorium is attractive because it’s much more abundant than uranium. The seed charges of U-233 that are required for LFTR’s can be made from legacy reactor waste.

    Oh and China appears to be determined to develop LFTR’s on their own. This should be a “sputnik moment” for the West.

  97. zhando permalink
    March 24, 2011

    Oh and the only drawback to Thorium that I can think of is using it in a legacy Light Water Reactor – there’s no advantage there besides the raw feedstock issue and again making profits off of manufacturing fuel assemblies – and there’s many disadvantages doing it that way.

  98. jcapan permalink
    March 28, 2011

    “Japan is a prime example of everything’s that’s wrong with this system. There are approximately 100 million people situated on that small Island chain living a highly materialistic lifestyle of consumerism”

    Way late to respond but just wanted to deliver a virtual broken nose to this dumb cunt.

  99. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 28, 2011

    That is an extremely horrible word to use, and an insult to women everywhere. It’s speaks volumes to your character. You advocate violence and you use a horrible word to describe the beauty of a woman to denigrate someone.

Comments are closed.