Casaubon's Book

Nicole Foss on Japan

As things unfold, there will be more to say about the terrible situation in Japan and its effects in the both the present and the future, but for now, Nicole Foss (aka Stoneleigh in her super financial analyst extraordinaire identity, and nuclear safety expert…is there anything she can’t do?) of The Automatic Earth has done a superb review of what we know, what we don’t know and the consequences we can anticipate. Very, very important! The comments at The Oil Drum are also often quite valuable. I think particularly useful is her evidence that this was not an unpredictable “black swan” event, but a predictable failure of infrastructure not designed to deal with the real extremes of nature – like so much of our infrastructure.

We need to evaluate the potential for a nuclear future in light of the disaster in Japan. This was not unpredictable, and should have been accounted for in any realistic assessment of nuclear potential. It cannot realistically be described as a black swan event.

Japan has few energy alternatives, as it lacks indigenous energy reserves and must import 80% of its energy requirements. It was therefore prepared to make Faustian bargains despite what should have been obvious risks. The impact of the loss of so much capacity, much of it probably permanently, on available electric power following the accident is very likely to impede Japan’s ability to recover from this disaster, potentially strengthening the parallels with America’s Hurricane Katrina.

Do read the whole thing. Also at TOD, a superb review of news and media coverage of the event to help get a wide perspective.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Stephen B.
    March 14, 2011

    Of course it was predictable, though some so-called nuclear “experts” around Boston are making apologies and saying otherwise. I’ve read some saying it isn’t fair to expect the nuclear plants to have been designed for a massive earthquake *and* a tsunami, one right after the other.

    Really? It’s unreasonable to expect a tsunami minutes or a few hours after a large earthquake……..at a location right on the coast of the Pacific Ocean……in one of the most seismically active locations of the world?

    It’s downright insulting how we are played for stupid by the “experts.”

  2. #2 Greenpa
    March 14, 2011

    absolutely correct, read it all.

    Not only WAS it predictable; it WAS predicted; in detail; and by Nicole Foss (among others). She’s actually being modest by not yelling “I TOLD YOU SO” – which she did.

    Let’s have this clear for any unaware; Foss is not only an “expert” because she’s a very smart blogger, she is a BIG FAT OFFICIAL INTERNATIONAL EXPERT on nuclear power- paid by the Oxford (as in yes that Oxford) Institute For Energy Studies to analyze the full system realities of nuclear power in Eastern Europe. She provides a link to that monograph (not hyperbole, it’s a genuine monograph) in the TAE article, but here it is again, in case:

    http://www.oxfordenergy.org/pdfs/SP11.pdf

    She also writes with a clarity equal to Sharon’s (insanely high praise); so don’t miss it.

  3. #3 Lisa Z
    March 14, 2011

    I’ve been amazed at how many nuclear “apologists” have come out of the woodwork commenting on my favorite liberal rags. I mean, how can nuclear be considered “green” in the least?! I completely agreed with what Nicole had to say about how human societies have never lasted as long as nuclear waste needs to be stored, and that in touch economic times we just don’t/can’t update infrastructure. Those same apologists have been saying that Japan’s plant was 40 years old, as if to say “of course it could fail when it’s that old”. Ugh.

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    March 14, 2011

    Those same apologists have been saying that Japan’s plant was 40 years old, as if to say “of course it could fail when it’s that old”. Ugh.

    Please don’t overstate the case. The state of the art has improved in important ways. Whether those improvements are enough to achieve acceptable safety levels is one thing, but pretending they haven’t happened is just setting yourself up to be discredited.

  5. #5 Sharon Astyk
    March 14, 2011

    DC it is absolutely true that contemporary plants have better safety responses, but as long as we continue to operate 40 year old plants, the critique seems legitimate. When those license renewals come up, the observation is always made (at least in my region) that there’s no real difference between modern and older plants and no reason why they shouldn’t continue.

    I think fundamentally the issue around nuclear is mostly its front-loaded costs and energy investment – they are simply tremendously expensive in both money and energy to build. I find it remarkably unlikely to imagine we’d be able to scale up nuclear power in the present circumstances, and of course, the Japan situation will change that, both in terms of public perception, and if we actually take the lessons to heart, in terms of the cost of building for more extreme events.

    Sharon

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    March 14, 2011

    When those license renewals come up, the observation is always made (at least in my region) that there’s no real difference between modern and older plants and no reason why they shouldn’t continue.

    Unfortunately that’s true — because in the USA the most up-to-date licensed plant designs date from te 1970s. If someone were to start a new nuclear plant today, their only legal option would be another Palo Verde.

    Which is insane, but there you are.

    However, my objection is purely one of pragmatic rhetoric: don’t overstate your case. Doing so just begs for those who disagree with you to zero in on the overstatement. Even (or especially) if it’s not important to your point, it undermines the rest of it.

  7. #7 Sharon Astyk
    March 14, 2011

    Absolutely true, DC – I agree with you.

    Sharon

  8. #8 Greenpa
    March 14, 2011

    DC and Sharon; while it’s true “new designs are better” – what is ALSO true is that new designs are still being called deeply flawed and inadequate; by nuclear engineers. And, they are being ignored this time, as they were in the first cycle. For the same reasons- money.

    http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/reactor-design-edges-toward-approval-but-not-without-complaints/

  9. #9 D. C. Sessions
    March 14, 2011

    Greenpa, I really should dig up a very good article on the systemic issues that led up to the Challenger disaster. Or you can download a copy of the Commission’s report (if you don’t read anything else, read Richard Feynman’s separate conclusions.)

    The nuclear industry management has the same structural issues that the report covers.

  10. #10 D. C. Sessions
    March 14, 2011

    Sorry — I meant to mention that the article was quite some years ago (ten-plus) in IEEE Spectrum Magazine. IEEE members should be able to score electronic copies, or you could hunt them down at most university libraries.

  11. #11 et
    March 14, 2011

    So we seem to agree that nuclear energy isn’t the answer. But what is? The high energy alternatives are hardly much better – coal, oil, even hydro all have significant (to say the least) downsides.

    Moving to low energy input society seems to be the only answer but that takes a massive change in how we do and value just about everything. Transportation, housing, livelihoods, food systems all would need fundamental change.

    Have we ever undertaken such a massive, powerdown change voluntarily? No. Are we likely to in the near future?

  12. #12 Lisa Z
    March 14, 2011

    I guess I’m not sure how I’ve overstated my case–I’m too dumb to even know what you mean by that, D.C. Perhaps I just said it in too few words, thinking my point would be understood by those reading Nicole’s words. What I meant was, yes, undoubtedly those 40-year old plants are less safe than what could be built today, but there isn’t money to keep updating them ad infinitum (or for at least as many years as we’ll need to for safe storage purposes). In Minnesota where I live is where the Interstate bridge collapsed a few years ago. We have a countless amount of old infrastructure in this country that we don’t seem to have the political will to keep up now, and who knows about some later date. Nicole’s point that humanity has NEVER seen a society last long enough for this is so right on. It is pure human hubris that this current society will, and Sharon generally writes to that effect regardless of what topic she’s covering at this site.

  13. #13 D. C. Sessions
    March 14, 2011

    Moving to low energy input society seems to be the only answer but that takes a massive change in how we do and value just about everything.

    It might be a lot less of a change than you think. Just freaking insulating homes and businesses would make a huge difference [1]. A third of our total energy consumption goes to transportation, and I don’t mean trains. Artificial light (mostly incandescent) amounts to quite a bit of the total, too. How efficient is most home heating (clue: electric resistance heaters use something like ten times what a heat pump does, and heat pumps to ground water are even more efficient.)

    It’s a very, very long list.

    The astonishingly wasteful practices that are common today are more a matter of laziness or inertia than cost. When I had this house built in Phoenix in 1982 I had the insulation upgraded from R-12 total to R-19 for less than $200 — and I had to bring up the subject because the builder didn’t even mention it as an option.

    [1] Ever considered the R-factor of a twenty-story glass wall?

  14. #14 D. C. Sessions
    March 14, 2011

    I guess I’m not sure how I’ve overstated my case–I’m too dumb to even know what you mean by that, D.C.

    I profoundly doubt that dumbth has anything to do with it.

    The age of those old plants does have safety implications, so you’re handing your opponents a freebie if you attack the argument that the age matters — at least if you do so without qualifications, and of course those have rhetorical liabilities too.

    If you’re going to attack the argument that the plants failed because they were old, you’re better off asking what it is about new plant designs that would make them immune to the same failures. Since all but the very newest plants [1] rely on active cooling of essentially the same pile designs with essentially the same chemistry [2] and essentially the same backup cooling architecture as the older ones, they’re not going to be able to plausibly claim that a new plant in the same situation would be any safer.

    [1] I’m not counting radical stuff like liquid-metal cooling, helium cooling, pebble bed, thorium, etc. Those are still in development and don’t have real-world track records. Limit your argument to plants which have been on-line for at least five years.
    [2] don’t take my word for this, but the great part is that by asking the question you don’t have to pretend to expertise.