Nuclear Power and the Problem of the Future

Note, I'm horrified to realize I inadvertantly left out the link to Rhagavan's piece - SO SORRY about that, and please do click through - it is well worth a full read.

Barath Rhagavan has a superb article about the conversion of many climate scientists to support of nuclear power and the reasons this is problematic. These match my own major objections to nuclear as a response. As serious as the environmental impact of failure is, that's not the single biggest issue I see. Even if I thought the siting would avoid any future climate related disasters (I don't), the main issue is the problem of economics and depletion in the longer term. Nuclear is simply, as Rhagavan puts it, not a technology that fails well:

Specifically, three things strike me as the major reasons to avoid nuclear:

Limits to growth. In a (permanently?) declining global economy, the resources (mostly financial, though military resources are important for nuclear safety) to keep plants well maintained are going to be scarce. Nicole Foss said it well---that after studying nuclear safety in Eastern Europe she concluded that nuclear power is incompatible with hard times. It's these hard times that invalidate assumptions about the safety procedures and other risk modeling, for example, that can cause unforeseen cascading accidents.

Waste storage. I think it is possible for us to store waste for the short term. It's the longer term that is a bit more doubtful, and regardless of the duration it's an expensive undertaking. The 2010 documentary Into Eternity on Finland's waste storage plans reminded me of a few things: a) Finland is a small country, and yet the scale of the waste site is huge, b) planning for the 100 years it'll take to finish the waste site is hard enough (will there be the money needed to complete it? how is it possible to plan for 100 years when we can't plan beyond the next congressional election?) let alone the hundreds of thousands of years it needs to survive intact, and c) they've been working on this for a decade already, while no other country has even the beginnings of a solution. (The documentary was a bit sad: Finland has assembled a number of expert, sincere people trying to solve a problem that you sense they realize cannot be solved.)

Scale. Nuclear isn't particularly cheap when you compare it to alternatives (though cost estimates vary wildly) and is difficult to scale up quickly. In my calculations on alternative energy several months back, I found David MacKay's estimate that the peak rate of nuclear power plant construction ever achieved was 30GW of nameplate capacity per year, globally. At that rate we'd only build 0.6TW in 20 years, a drop in the bucket compared to the ~16TW of primary energy we consume globally today.

As I've said many times, we'd find a justification for shovelling live baby harp seals into furnaces if necessary, so I don't have the slightest doubt we are going to build some nuclear plants. Or at least try to. In the end, opposition to nuclear will vanish as energy becomes scarcer and more expensive - but probably too late to do a large scale build out, if it isn't already.

One of my worries is that a half-built nuclear plant is a long way from being an asset on the landscape - and one of the consequences of economic collapse is a lot of half-built things. Still, I put this with drilling in ANWAR - it will happen. But fundamentally, it can't happen fast enough to "save" us from our collective crisis. And it isn't a solution.

Ultimately, all those conversions come from a simple underlying premise - we won't cut our energy usage. They are probably right, in terms of voluntary response. Our energy usage will get cut, however, by necessity, if not desire. Sadly, it probably won't be enough to avoid unchecked climate change - but neither will the number of nuclear plants we actually build before the depletion curve bangs into us.



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"Incompatible with hard times" is so well put -- especially for all those open air waste pools, which need expensive and expert maintenance for decades. Starvation Ridge is about this, or anyways about the consequences. How do we ever get to "post"-apocalytic if we shackle ourselves to apocalyptic and drag it along with us?

Not a technology that fails well? What a despicable lie.

Tepco's photojournal shows that not a blade of grass was harmed by radiation at FD1: .

Now the Japanese government is earning millions of additional dollars per day on LNG imports. Let's hope the citizens can soon get it to stop lying about their opinions, and turn the reactors back on.

Wow. if it were my blog, #2 would be deleted; I see NO value in allowing astroturf. Any readers actually interested in unfiltered truth from Japan should check out my blog.

Anyway- Sharon, my #1 reason why nuclear is stupid is- it relies on HUMAN judgements and actions to keep it safe. And the things are so complex each one has 50,000 individual decisions involved in constructing it; and 1,000 per year in maintaining it.

And 98% of those must be 98% correct- or- meltdown. (They do build in that 2% "safety factor".

Engineers tend to believe in perfectibility. As an evolutionist- I believe in evolution; which includes lots and lots of death. Humans, over time, will ALWAYS eventually make a bad decision; and in the case of nuclear power- the consequences are unacceptable. Most recently from Japan; even the government is admitting that some towns around Fukushima will still be uninhabitable 10 years down the road; not matter how much clean up is done. And those are the wild-eyed optimists.

Thanks Sharon!

The good news, if there is any, about leaving half-built nuclear plants on the landscape is that fuel is only loaded at the very end, so if nothing else they'll be sites with lots of high-quality metals and equipment for stripping down and re-use.

Mr. Graham Cowan, you have been just about everywhere over the Internet over the years peddling your nuclear views.

Just how much do you get paid for the continuous disinformation campaign?

The funny thing is, I don't think you *do* actually get paid to perform the astroturfing. No, I picture you locked into your engineering laboratory, surrounded by fellow techies, year after year, funded by who, I don't know, hoping that we'll all eventually be surrounded by copious numbers of nuclear plants, all the better to make the electricity to fund your boron car fuel ideas, all while belittling and lamenting the billions of uninformed Luddites you folks are otherwise stuck on this planet with.

Greenpa has it. Engineers (I am a former EE) put *way* too much credence into the idea that technology, especially complex technological systems, will perform with near perfection. But, of course, it's the people working the technology that fail as we've seen time and time again. Please do yourself a favor and finally open your eyes to this reality of the human world as it really is.

I want to love nuclear, but the facts are that we have hundreds of plants world wide, combined with thousands of tons of spent fuel, sitting mainly in temporary storage, that are Chernobyl times 10 waiting to release amazing amounts of radiation. Even the prosperous, well-off country of Japan cannot deal with the repercussions of their serious, nuclear plant failure. It could get far worse if the main spent fuel pool fails as said possibility has been recently reported. The idea that Iran or many other less prosperous, less stable societies can properly safeguard nuclear power facilities for decades, let alone years, is preposterous. In fact, it is indeed an idea that only can exist inside the minds of scientists and engineers that have spent too much of their time in a research laboratory, away from the realities that comprise the rest of human existence.

I'm sorry, but your complex technological utopia, fueled by nuclear and boron technologies just isn't going to happen, now, or frankly ever. Humanity just doesn't have what it takes, in the aggregate, to support such a level of complexity.

Indeed, what we've seen over the past 5 to 10 years is a civilization failing to maintain the complexity it already has created.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 23 Apr 2012 #permalink

As an Engineer, who has actually worked on nuclear plants, I can tell you that Greenpa @3 is not correct. Lots of errors can be made and a nuclear plant will still be safe. Far more than the 2% he allows. Although it is true that nuclear does not fail well.

We Engineers believe in redundant safety systems, to cope with the problem of putting people in the loop.

Despite all that, nuclear is not the solution to our problems, for the good and cogent reasons quoted above. It is too slow to build and costs way too much to be economical except in very high energy density settings, where you can build a huge plant and get some economies of scale.

Waste storage is a solved problem, if we are willing to pay what it would cost to be safe (search for Synroc; an Australian solution that I had a very small part in back in the '80s).

But again, the problem is cost. And don't even ask about the insurance underwriting issues...

By Robert Day (not verified) on 23 Apr 2012 #permalink

Robert- I knew it was more than 2%; and assumed (foolishly perhaps) that most readers here at Science blogs would recognize "poetic license" when they saw it. Mea culpa. : - ) Do you happen to know what the actual safety factors tend to be? My taking poetic license there was based on the attempt to communicate to readers "reality"; rather than "engineer religious faith".

My father was a Navy Civil Engineer, and later professor; and worked at multiple nuclear facilities- we NEVER were able to agree about it; and learned to just avoid the topic.

This true observation/conversation with him will illustrate to most people the failure in the engineer's belief system.

Driving past the local High School, my father and I observed them repairing the roof of the gymnasium; for the 4th time. I made an offhand comment about how idiotic it had been to choose to build a flat roof in the first place, under any circumstances, in Minnesota. My father responded quite angrily (it always pissed him off when I offered opinions on engineering - never mind that I now hold international patents in metallurgy...) "Don't be an ass; there's absolutely nothing wrong with a flat roof here- you just have to build it correctly."

As we drove- watching them fix it- again. I didn't bother to point out - "Yes; but they DIDN'T build it correctly; did they? And; historically; what percentage of similar flat roofs in this climate ARE built to adequate standards?" - because it would just piss him off further.

He could sit there- SEE the failure- and still believe, and argue- no, flat roofs are a good technology.

No; they're not- not in Minnesota- because they're always built by PEOPLE, you know.

And; my father was unquestionably a top competent engineer. If you ever land at the Honolulu airport- he built it (ok, he was one of the chief design and construction engineers). But- he never had any real comprehension of "human frailty" - it just wasn't allowed, in his world.

But that's just it Robert, we *don't* want to pay for the storage. That's why world wide we have hundreds of semi-temporary spent fuel rod pools, just sitting there, requiring active cooling for many years on end, pools that burn their capping water off in a matter of a week or so, when active cooling fails.

In short, waste *isn't* a solved problem at all. In fact, as we've seen in Japan, it's at the heart of the matter, given the problem they've had with their pools.

What happens to those spent fuel pools when a society suffers hard times, never mind what happens to the main reactor vessel, even if it is shut down? It can't just sit there for years while economic storms, revolutions and counter revolutions swirl around, outside the gate.

We engineers can say over and over, that the technology is redundant, that solutions exist, but if said solutions for whatever reason, are not attractive enough to be utilized 100 percent, by the society at large, then, especially in the case of nuclear, it fails.

There will be more Chernobyls, Three Mile Islands, and especially Fukushimas. You and I can count on them. There are many plants similar to the Fukushima design (I'm talking about the pools as well, not just the main reactor, circulation design, vessel, and reactor containment structure), that require months and years of active cooling to the pools....counting on uninterrupted off-site power availability all that time. (No power plant keeps the months and years of backup diesel fuel on hand that cooling systems require in the event of a bad earthquake, tsunami, or other natural or man-made months-long grid outage, exactly the kind of grid outage that is quite possible especially in the less-developed world now turning to nuclear.

It is quite obvious to me that, unless the world gets spent fuel broken down, repackaged, and quickly stored in ways that allow passive cooling in removed, remote, isolated locations, there will be lots more pool accidents, and probably much worse than the one at Fukushima and this world ISN'T going to do this for the same reason this world hasn't done a lot of other things it should do - it can put it off until tomorrow - and with very predictable consequences.

When engineers argue against human nature as we are often likely to do, engineers lose every time, and this applies to much more than the nuclear power situation.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 23 Apr 2012 #permalink

EXACTLY what Greenpa #7 just said, while I was typing.

The belief system for way too many engineers simply fails to understand the human situation. That is, engineers do understand that humanity has an inability to understand and execute technological systems, but all too many engineers think that if only enough science and technology would be *forced* onto their fellow, un-technological brethren, all would eventually turn out okay.

As a former engineer, Greenpa, I'm not surprised that he used to get upset by conversations such as you mentioned.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 23 Apr 2012 #permalink

As somebody who works in nuclear energy but is not a true believer, my view of it is the same as any energy source -- we'll make better decisions about our energy future if we first understand our energy present. So I wrote a book detailing life at a US nuclear plant both before and during an "unfortunate event". The intent is not to convince eveyone that nuclear is perfectly safe or terribly dangerous, but rather to give folks a realistic look at the process. (Obviously, I don't think it's horrible, but nothing's perfect either.) What decisions we make going forward depend on a lot of things beyond our imperfect technology and pure economics.

"Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power" is avaiable free online (no sponsors or ads) - just Google the title. There's also a paperback at Amazon for traditionalists. There are many reader reviews of Rad Decision at the homepage. Little media attention though - they're too busy, I guess.

I also commend the author of the post on mentioning conservation. The cleanest, cheapest, safest energy out there is the stuff we don't use.

For those of you who want to see what Sharon's talking about looks like, come visit us in Washington state. The state utility (WPPS, pronounced "Whoops") decided to build some nuclear power plants a few decades back. They went broke, and the unfinished concrete plants have been sitting and mouldering ever since. Fortunately that happened well before they were ready to take delivery of fuel.

So, yeah, we'll try it; perhaps even with the thorium technology the nuclear power boosters have been talking about for the last 50 years. We're a lot broker now, as a nation, than we were 30 years ago; so with any luck, the results will be similar to the WPPS experience.

Marrowstone Island

"When engineers argue against human nature as we are often likely to do, engineers lose every time, and this applies to much more than the nuclear power situation."

Or to put that another way...

Whenever engineers are 100% sure they have designed and built something that is completely idiot proof, nature always one ups them by coming up with a new and much improved idiot!

By Fred Magyar (not verified) on 23 Apr 2012 #permalink

It should be noted that after a couple of years one can move to the dry cask storage method. It should be noted that the heat produced by spent fuel decays with time. Of course if one worked at it with 1 ton of fuel producing 10kw after a year you could do something like the thermocouple heat generators on deep space probes and get some electricity from it. The Dry cask method is probably good in the 100 year time frame at least depending on where the storage place is.


That's pretty much what I was getting at...dry cask storage in a deep, secure place. It's not perfect, nor do I want to gloss things over for the nuclear power industry, but almost anything is better than the hundreds of cooling pools sitting around, most in highly populated areas, and/or near lots of water bodies, the pools just waiting to run dry for one failure reason or another.

Here's more "good" news about Fukushima too... The web site is a bit extremist, but if even half of this is true (and probably is, given the citations contained within), then we are in serious trouble: "…"

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 23 Apr 2012 #permalink

FWIW, here's the URL for the original post:

Long delay, thanks to the time difference from here to most of you.

Greenpa @7, sorry, I have been too long out of the industry to know what factor of safety the US regulators require. It varies across the world, of course. Mostly we designed to cope with ten times the expected output, and at least five times the calculated worst case scenario. But like I said, that varies, which is a lot of the problem.

I'm afraid I don't understand your father. Certainly flat roofs are fine, and could be built in Minnesota, I suppose. But engineering is supposed to be about efficient solutions, which a flat roof prone to snow loads is most certainly not. That attitude just doesn't make sense to me, personally or professionally. Maybe I was trained differently...

Stephen B. @8, yes that was my point. The barriers to the widespread use of nuclear power are not technical, but economic. We are never going to be prepared to pay what it would cost to have safe nuclear power, and most especially waste storage. And again, why build the nuclear flat roof when we have better, safer and more efficient solutions already (efficient in the overall sense here).

I think this argument needs to be pushed more. The proponents of nuclear power often that the next generation of reactors will be safe. But in reality, we could make our existing technology safe enough, if we spent enough. Which we will continue to be unwilling, perhaps unable to do.

I can do no better than cite the Amory Lovins concept of the negawatt. The cheapest, cleanest power is the power you don't have to generate. Let's start there, with the lowest hanging fruit. When we have all we can from efficiency and reduction, then we can look for other sources of power.

Of course, the other objection to nuclear power is that it is just too slow. There is no way that we could replace fossil fuels with nuclear quickly enough to avoid serious climate change. Even with Gen 4 technology, which so far is as proven as carbon capture and storage or unicorn powered treadmills.

By Robert Day (not verified) on 23 Apr 2012 #permalink

Barath, so, so sorry for omitting the link - I'm not sure what's wrong with my brain these days (probably the night waking for kidding season). You are very gracious about it, but I'm horrified that I left it out!


I agree that it is a good thing that the fuel is loaded at the end (and did know that), but the larger point is that generally speaking, when facing actual collapse, you want solutions that work EVEN if there is a systems failure. For example, distributed solar or wind systems that get partially up often can provide some power, or could be made to. Nuclear is problematic because of the enormous frontloading of fossil fuels and money that goes into it - basically all the carbon and cash get put up front, and even a fuel-less nuclear plant, as Glenn points out, is simply not a landscape asset and is hard to repurpose.


Thanks Sharon, and no problem.

Agreed about the uselessness of half-built plants. I think Greer expects the same thing---IIRC his story Star's Reach has many half-built nuclear plants dotting the landscape, and one of the issues is that people don't know which ones are safe and which ones aren't (i.e. with fuel or without fuel), so they mostly stay away and that investment is wasted.

There's also a huge cross-generational ethical issue about projects (or systems, or items) whose benefits are short-lived and costs are long-lasting.

Included in that category are lingering CO2 from fossil fuel consumption, nuclear decommissioning and waste timescales well in excess of a plant's productive life.

"nuclear power is incompatible with hard times"£

Indeed, if you build enough of it. The correlation between national wealth and energy production is to close to honestly dispute.

If you knew anything about the subject you would know that reactor waste has a relatively short half live (otherwise it coulfn't be so radioactive) & is thus down to safe levels within decades.

There is no objective reason why building reactors cannot be scaled - ir mass produced. The reason it isn't done is entirely politicis. You might as well say that because cars were handmade in 1900 it is impossible for Mr Ford's newfangled mas production line to work & thus for America to have more than a few hundred cars.

By Neil craig (not verified) on 25 Apr 2012 #permalink


"If you knew anything at all"... you'd know that if a spent fuel rod pool loses its active cooling for anything for a few days to a week or so, it will boil dry LONG BEFORE decades have passed by, leading to wildly radioactive fires.

You obviously didn't read much of the comment thread above where a lot of us agreed that things "could" be done better, except that human nature gets in the way (the thing you disparagingly call "politics.")

Argue all you want, but massive-scale nuclear power will not work as humans, on a large and long scale, do not have the ability to adequately follow through on the maintenance required to protect hundreds upon hundreds of nuclear plants and spent fuel pools (all with fuel FAR younger than "decades."

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 25 Apr 2012 #permalink

We have done so for over 60 years so far.

If your claims about it being impossible for human beings to work together were true Mr Ford would not have been able to produce all these cars (or Al Gore the internet ;-) ).

You first paragraph majes sense only if no unattened, underground storage of waste has ever existed. That, of course, is as false as virtually everyhting said by any of the Luddites calling themselves "environmentalists". Or perhaps you would care to produce some evidence that all the ones existing are actually imaginary.