Meltdowns, Waste, and War: Here Are the Real Risks of Nuclear

Yves here. Most readers are likely to agree with the point of view of this article, that of expressing serious reservations about nuclear power. It’s still useful to have the high-level arguments in one place.

By Nathanael Johnson (@savortooth on Twitter), Grist’s senior writer and the author of two books. Originally published at  

Is it any wonder that nuclear power scares people? The word nuclearalone conjures up a parade of terrors: the sinister radiation, the whiff of apocalypse, and the tendency to go boom.

Those are the obvious sci-fi horrors. But nuclear power comes with plenty of other risks that aren’t so obvious: the hazards of uranium mining, the fouled water, and the radioactive waste.

So do these horrors mean nuclear power shouldn’t be part of our tool kit for fighting climate change? After all, it doesn’t produce greenhouse gases. That’s why some have pushed to power plants open, and even . Often, nuclear nightmares are considered in isolation rather than weighed against the alternatives. Nobody, for instance, wants to get stuck with nuclear waste that stays radioactive for 10,000 years — but perhaps some would prefer that to coal waste, which contains mercury and lead and remains toxic forever.

When it comes to nuclear power, the risks appear right from with uranium mining. And they continue to pop up throughout the nuclear life cycle, from enrichment and reactor operation to the radioactive waste at the end. It’s a process fraught with hazards.

Mining

When I started asking around about reasons to oppose nuclear power, I was surprised by how the history of uranium mining kept coming up. There’s a reason for this: It’s appalling.

The writer Peter Hessler visited and met men breathing through oxygen respirators and women who had buried miners after they suffered agonizing deaths. One described her uncle’s decline to Hessler: “His lungs just crystallized and he was spitting up this bloody stuff. They told us it was parts of his lungs.”

During World War II, the U.S. government began digging for uranium throughout the Southwest to create the first atomic bombs. Officials saw early on that the work posed a hazard, says Stephanie Malin, a sociologist at Colorado State University, but they didn’t tell the miners or the people living in the surrounding communities. After all, they were making a secret weapon.

“They made recommendations — better ventilation in the mines, radiation monitors,” Malin says. “But these recommendations were made in classified public health documents in the 1950s. The government responded by not doing anything until the 1970s.”

Crushed rock from a uranium mill in Moab, Utah.

Meanwhile, people living downstream drank water seeping out of the mines, full of radioactive isotopes. Cancer clusters began to emerge, Malin tells me.

Many uranium mines were on the Navajo Nation, a 27,000-square-mile territory in northern Arizona and New Mexico. And this isn’t just ancient history.

“An undetermined amount of uranium mines still exist on native lands, and the government hasn’t finished cleaning up the ones we know about,” says Cecilia Martinez, executive director of the environmental justice group, .

The federal government has fairly sophisticated clean-up plans, but politicians have refused to provide the money needed to carry them out, says , who studies the uranium supply chain at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

Mining today is much safer than it was during the Cold War, Vestergaard says. It takes at least a decade to complete all the environmental- and social-impact assessments needed before you start a new mine. “One thing I can say about mining is that it’s radically different than it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Vestergaard says.

So mining’s much safer, but that’s not the same as safe. Studies have found increased risks ranging from lung cancer to diabetes in (though there’s not enough evidence to prove that mining is the cause). Other studies have suggested that are more likely than white-collar workers.

Mining of all kinds scars the land and puts people in danger. Coal and tar sands mining cause the same problems on a larger scale. Even renewable power relies on people for solar panels and .

There are bits of radioactive material scattered throughout the earth’s crust, and when you excavate tons and tons of rock, you’re going to get exposed to a lot of it. As a result, the people digging up the elements required to make solar panels collectively get the people mining an equivalent amount of uranium. Blasting out the iron ore needed to build wind turbines and generate the same amount of power exposes miners to a little less radiation.

Whether any of this radiation is harmful depends on how it’s spread around. The earth, bananas, and airplane trips give us small, harmless doses of radiation all the time. But a giant dose can kill. A found that individual uranium miners are exposed to roughly 4 percent of the federal limit of radiation for x-ray technicians and other .

Nuclear … War?

After uranium ore is milled into yellow cake, it goes through an where centrifuges spin uranium to transform it into nuclear fuel. Keep that fuel spinning longer, and it eventually turns into the stuff that can level cities.

So you can’t separate nuclear power from nuclear war. The crucial link in this connection between energy and weaponry is the enrichment process, not the reactors. You can’t build a warhead with nuclear-reactor fuel. You need to enrich it further. So as long as new reactors get their fuel from existing enrichment facilities, it doesn’t increase the risk of nuclear proliferation, says Matthew Bunn, a nuclear policy analyst at Harvard.

“As long as we keep control of enrichment and reprocessing, nuclear power can spread without spreading nuclear weapons,” Bunn explains.

There’s no guarantee that the United States and its allies will be able to keep control of the technology needed to concoct weapons-grade uranium. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is trying to make a deal to have the United States, Russia, or China build it a nuclear power plant. But Saudi Arabia refuses to say that it won’t then build the infrastructure needed to create nukes.

Sometimes, governments say they want to develop enrichment technology to generate their own fuel when they actually want to start making warheads. Iran, for instance, has that it’s only enriching uranium for reactors, but the fact that it built — and says it could produce weapons-grade uranium — suggests that something else is up.

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveils a sample of the third generation centrifuge for uranium enrichment in 2010. BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

You don’t need weapons-grade fuel to cause a disaster. Nuclear experts also stress over the possibility of a terrorist attack. In 1982, after , an anti-nuclear activist named Chaim Nissim shot five rocket-propelled grenades at the nuclear plant on the Rhone River in France. The reactor was still under construction, so there was no danger of a meltdown. The grenades damaged the outer concrete shell but not much else.

Nuclear experts are sure that terrorists have considered attacking working plants with the aim of causing a meltdown. So facilities need security: guns, guards, and gates.

“You need to make sure you have enough security that so bad guys don’t do what the tsunami did to Fukushima — cutting off the power and disabling the backup power to start a meltdown,” Bunn says. Most nuclear plants have so much security that terrorists look elsewhere, “at a dam or a chemical plant instead,” he says.

It appears to be working so far. There hasn’t been an attack on a civilian reactor since Nissim’s attack 36 years ago.

Let’s continue our tour of things that can go wrong in the nuclear fuel cycle. After getting enriched, fuel goes to the reactor, and that’s where you run the risk of meltdowns.

Meltdowns

In the middle of the night on April 26, 1986, workers shut off the safety systems to run a test on the Chernobyl plant, in the Soviet Ukraine. Something went wrong. The reactor ramped up to 100 times its normal power, heating the steam in its pressurized system until the reactor exploded through the roof of the building around it. A fishermanin the sky from the reactor. People 60 miles away felt the ground shake. Two workers on site were , and others would die from radiation exposure. Scandinavian countries .

There have been three high-profile accidents since nuclear plants , and Chernobyl was the worst. Besides the two killed by the explosion, from acute radiation poisoning. Estimates of the total number of deaths in the years since varies wildly as a result of basic methodological disagreements over how much radiation increases your likelihood of cancer. came up with an estimate of 4,000 to 9,000 deaths.

And then there’s the Fukushima meltdown, which caused no direct fatalities. A from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded that health effects to the general public from radiation were almost nil. The committee expects to see two or three more cancerous tumors among the 173 workers most exposed to radiation. The evacuation of 110,000 people, however, led to . Scientists reassessed the disaster response and , even with the risk of radiation, locals would have been put.

Three Mile Island, a reactor just south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, partially melted down in 1978. No one was killed in the accident, and there was only . The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the accident had But it may have been enough to increase the risk of thyroid cancer among people exposed, .

Nuclear disasters are terrifying. They capture the attention of the world. Fossil fuels, in contrast, are quiet and insidious. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels, for instance, kills some every year. Calculated in terms of deaths per units of electricity generated, nuclear is that comes from industrial plants.

Usually, when we’ve shut down a nuclear plant, or decided not to build one, it’s led to a greater reliance on fossil fuels. When Germany started shutting down nuclear reactors in 2011, its progress stalled in and .

As the environmentalist Mark Lynas pointed out in his book, Nuclear 2.0, when Japan shut down its nuclear plants after Fukushima, it started burning more natural gas and coal.

“Looking at the air pollution mortality figures strongly suggests that it is untrue to say that nobody will die because of Fukushima,” Lynas writes. “People will die; but not from radiation. Their lives will instead be shortened because of an increased reliance on fossil fuels due to post-Fukushima nuclear fear.”

Still, Harvard’s Bunn tells me I shouldn’t let the whiplash between my assumptions and the facts make me too bullish on nuclear. It’s been relatively safe only because we’ve been so careful.

“It requires human excellence,” Bunn says. “Yes, it’s much better today than it was before Fukushima — and it’s dramatically better today than it was before Three Mile Island — but we need continuous improvement.”

He adds that countries need to put in place focused incentives to get energy officials and others to point out the weak points in the technology — though he admits that such critics don’t tend to be very popular.

“Countries with a lot of corruption, countries that lock up whistleblowers, they just shouldn’t have nuclear power,” Bunn readily admits.

Waste

Even if you manage to avoid disasters, at the end of this process you will always end up with nuclear waste.

I really thought that the waste was something like green goo seeping through barrels, like you see in cartoons, but it’s actually all solid, just metal rods holding spent uranium. The rods go into a pool of water, and then, when radioactivity has cooled off somewhat, into metal and concrete containers filled with helium.

These dry casks stay at the power plants where workers can keep an eye on them, and it seems to work pretty well. “Since the first casks were loaded in 1986, dry storage has released no radiation that affected the public or contaminated the environment,” .

Of course, the strongest container can’t last forever, and nuclear waste remains radioactive for as long as 10,000 years. If society abandons these dry casks, rather than maintaining and replacing them for perpetuity, they will eventually erode and expose the surrounding area to radiation.

There’s no perfect solution for spent fuel, but there’s no perfect solution for any kind of energy waste, Stimson Center’s Vestergaard says.

“We currently have around 400,000 tons of nuclear waste globally,” she says. Compare that to coal power, which produces nearly 100 times that much waste every year in the country of .

These other forms of waste aren’t nearly as well-controlled as nuclear. According to a comparison made by the science writer Mara Hvistendahl, “the fly ash emitted by a power plant — a byproduct from burning coal for electricity — carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.”

Takeaways

I’d gone into this analysis hoping I could put all these risks into economic terms — give them a dollar value, and see if this increased cost simply made nuclear prohibitive. But when I ask Bunn about that he says, “That’s the wrong way to think about it.”

Bunn offers up a simple rubric for thinking about nuclear risk: “(a) the risk is often exaggerated, (b) there are options we should be taking to reduce the risk, but (c) the risk can’t be reduced to zero,” he wrote in an email.

In the past, policymakers weighed the risks and doled them out in a way that fell disproportionately on the Navajo and other communities of color. In the future, nuclear plants will only succeed when communities weigh the risks for themselves, and decide they want them, Vestergaard says.

“Countries are realizing that we can’t just go in and build these things,” she says.

Chinese officials learned this the hard way in 2013, when they decided to build a 500-acre nuclear fuel production park in the industrial Pearl River delta. The government often bulldozes through local objections to development, but in this case the locals won.

“The community went, ‘Nope.’ And the government said, ‘We’re still doing it,’ and the communities said, ‘Nope, you’re not.’ And the government said, ‘Oh, I guess we’re not,’” Vestergaard explains.

Contrast that with the underground repository for nuclear waste that recently opened . In that case, officials found a community that was open to the idea, then let locals shape the project.

“Countries need to educate and work with the people,” Vestergaard says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a mine or a waste repository or a nuclear power plant: If you don’t have community support, you aren’t going anywhere.”

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109 comments

  1. PlutoniumKun

    I think its futile trying to make a direct environmental comparison between nuclear power and fossil fuels/renewables. The primary issue with nuclear power is that if something goes wrong, its a low probability, but extremely high impact effect, so by definition its not commensurable with the known, on-going quantifiable pollution from coal plants, or the indirect environmental impacts from renewables. What Fukushima should have taught us is that sometimes the ‘impossible’ happens – the tsunami that hit that coast was significantly out of what was predicted as a worst case scenario during its design and consent process. There are many similarly vulnerable nuclear plants around the world. We may get lucky with them – we may not.

    But the core issue with nuclear today is very simply. It doesn’t work in an economic sense. Every succeeding generation of nuclear plant has been more complex, more expensive to build, more expensive to run. They won’t admit it, but the current generation of new plants such as the and the are commercial and technical failures. The former has destroyed Westinghouse as a viable company, the latter has crippled the European nuclear industry. Nobody wants to build one unless they get huge government incentives, or the government itself wants them for strategic reasons. Solar and wind (and fossil fuels) are now significantly cheaper and have lower economic risk factors. Alternative designs, such as pebble bed reactors and a variety of fast breeders or Thorium reactors have proven not to live up to the hype. Of course, the promotors will say ‘give us X billion and 5 years and we’ll make them work’, but they’ve been selling that line for decades.

    I’ve always (for an environmentalist) been fairly neutral on nuclear energy, as bad and all as it is, nuclear meltdown isn’t as dangerous as climate meltdown. But the reality is that for all sorts of reasons its proven an economic dead end, and is only where it is now because countries wanted nuclear technology for weapons (the main driver behind reactor design was for submarine power plants, which is why we’ve ended up with crappy light water designs). There is no chance whatever of nuclear power being scaled up on the timescale needed (the next lifecycle of power infrastructure – 20-30 years) to combat climate change at a reasonable economic cost. Its energy saving and renewables, or its nothing.

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      You mention that every succeeding generation of nuclear plant has been more complex, more expensive to build, more expensive to run.” This is true. To quote some numbers from :

      The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) calculated that, in constant 2002 values, the realized overnight cost of a nuclear power plant built in the USA grew from $1500/kWe in the early 1960s to $4000/kWe in the mid-1970s. The EIA cited increased regulatory requirements (including design changes that required plants to be backfitted with modified equipment), licensing problems, project management problems and mis-estimation of costs and demand as the factors contributing to the increase during the 1970s.

      Interestingly, though, the South Koreans managed to build their nuclear fleet for $2021/kWe, which is less than half of what the US paid for their later units. This is only slightly more expensive that what we see with wind ($1590/kWe, per ) and solar ($1030/kWe, per ).

      But the key point is this: Nuclear can provide power 24/7/365. Wind and solar cannot. For a reliable grid, you also need to add energy storage to renewable systems. And you have to add a LOT of it. Mark Jacobson estimated 500 TWh for the US, and 15000 TWh for the world. The costs associated with such a large amount of storage are staggering. Perhaps $90 trillion or so (per ). You could provide the same energy coverage with only $11 trillion worth of South Korean nuclear stations.

      And don’t forget about the externalities of a big energy storage solution: Like massively expanded lithium, lead, and rare-earth mining. Easily a thousand times the mining activity that nuclear would require. Or the battery fires that will inevitably occur when we distribute hundreds of thousands of battery stations across the land. How much lead was strewn across the Hawaiian landscape here? .

      IMNSHO, betting on renewables has “sealed our fate” when it comes to global warming. We’ll get to somewhere between 20% and 25% renewable coverage, and then curtailment penalties and storage costs will bring progress to a screeching halt.

      1. Louis Fyne

        to add—

        as an illustration, even at 3am on a temperate April night, the mid-atlantic states+great lakes region need 64,000 MW just to keep the hospitals, 911, street lights and your refrigerator going.

        That’s the baseload that renewables has to provide—and we’re not even talking when it’s 93 degree days in summer or 0 degrees in January.

        for the foreseeable future, we need nuclear for the baseload and it’s negligent for ‘environmentalists’ to ignore that.

        but i guess we prefer fracking and gas power plants

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          Yep. There’s a dichotomy there. Gas turbines (fueled with natural gas) are frequently touted as the preferred backup solution for when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. But the only reason they’re economically viable is because of fracking, which has driven natural gas prices in the US to all-time lows.

          If we were to crack down on fracking, natural gas prices would skyrocket. And so would our gas bills and power bills. For a taste of how that works out for people who are already struggling financially, see the following:

          How much more expensive could energy prices get? Well, if the Energiewende-driven electricity prices in Germany are any indication, it could be really bad. German electricity already costs 3X as much as US electricity, and Germany hasn’t even started on the expensive energy-storage stuff yet.

      2. a different chris

        >IMNSHO, betting on renewables has “sealed our fate” when it comes to global warming.

        Dude, that bet was already made and lost on nuclear. I could easily argue that nuclear held up everything else.

        1. beth

          “Dude, that bet was already made and lost on nuclear. I could easily argue that nuclear held up everything else.”

          I agree and the way it did that was to argue that nuclear was cheaper. That happened because Congress agreed to pick up the costs of storing the waste in perpetuity. I don’t remember the year but I think it was around the time of the Three Mile Island disaster.

      3. Skip Intro

        And don’t forget about the externalities of a big energy storage solution: Like massively expanded lithium, lead, and rare-earth mining. Easily a thousand times the mining activity that nuclear would require.

        No one in their right mind would suggest using Li batteries for large-scale storage (sorry Elon), when there are , , pumped water, compressed air, molten sodium, even f’in’ flywheels.

        Arguments like that weaken the credibility of your other plausible sounding assertions.

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          I have yet to hear of a single energy storage station using flow batteries or iron-air batteries. There are only two compressed air stations on the planet that can provide more 100 MW of power for even a couple of hours, and they were both built before 1992. Only four molten salt stations have out there power ratings over 100MW. In the world of grid-energy storage, these are all toys.

          The only energy storage technology that has proven it’s mettle is pumped storage. Heck, the pumped storage station in my neck of the woods (the 1980s-vintage Bath County facility), holds 22000 MWh and can produce peak power of 3000 MW. It has more capacity than all of the world’s flow batteries, iron-air batteries, compressed air stations, and molten salt stations combined. And that’s just one station. There are dozens of them out there.

          But even though we have dozens, that’s still totally inadequate to the task. The world probably has 500,000 MWh = 500 GWh = 0.5 TWh of total pumped storage capability. Mark Jacobson says we need 15000 TWh. That’s a factor of thirty-thousand.

          Do you really think we can build that many pumped storage stations? Or build a few hundred-thousand (or even millions) of lithium ion stations? And yes, I agree with your assessment that using lithium-ion batteries for large-scale storage is crazy, but that’s the preferred solution right now. Nobody is building anything else. As dumb as it seems, I can only assume there’s a reason for that.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            I keep wondering . . . what about compressed hydrogen gas storage? Use sur-at-the-time electricity to electrolyze water and pump the hydrogen into storage. When electricity is needed, re-oxidize the hydrogen needed to recover most of the energy used to electrolyze the hydrogen and let the water vapor go back into the water cycle it came out of to begin with. That way, the only problems we would have to solve are the problems of storing hydrogen without it leaking out of storage.

            1. UserFriendly

              Hindenburg.
              Not only flammable but pressurized, which isn’t to say it can’t be done but it is a much riskier preposition. It might make sense for a green jet fuel if biodiesel doesn’t pack enough bang but probably not for large scale energy storage when pumping water up a hill is much safer.

              1. drumlin woodchuckles

                Flammability is indeed a problem. But natural gas is also flammable, and sometimes explodes into hyperflame when accidentally released from pressurised storage or transport in the presence of any kind of spark. But as long as it is kept from leaking out of pressurised transport, or from pressurised storage, and as long as there is very carefully zero oxygen mixed in there with it in the pressurised storage ( as in the underground caverns in Michigan where bulk quantities of natural gas purchased in the summer are stored for release and use in the winter), then it is not a problem.

                Is hydrogen so much more flammable than natural gas that it can’t be flame-or-explosion-prevented if it is stored in leak proof containment with zero oxygen in there with it the same way as we store natural gas?

                1. UserFriendly

                  I can’t say I’m an expert on the storage of natural gas in practice but since it’s density at STP is about 0.66 g/L you wouldn’t need to pressurize it very much to make it less buoyant than air (1g/L), or they could just chill it to liquify it. Hydrogen is much less dense (0.09 g/L) so either you would need to pressurize it much more or use smaller containers so that the weight of the container would prevent it from floating off and it would take way too much to cool to a liquid. The higher pressure might not be a deal breaker but it is just one more thing to consider. The higher the pressure the sturdier the container needs to be. Any large supply of Hydrogen would be less manageable than methane, but like I said, not impossibly so.

                  From :

                  The energy efficiency of a fuel cell is generally between 40–60%; however, if waste heat is captured in a cogeneration scheme, efficiencies up to 85% can be obtained

                  and also from

                  Pumped storage is the largest-capacity form of grid energy storage available, and, as of 2017, the United States Department of Energy Global Energy Storage Database reports that PSH accounts for over 96% of all active tracked storage installations worldwide, with a total installed nameplate capacity of over 168 GW.[3] The round-trip energy efficiency of PSH varies between 70%–80%,[4][5][6][7] with some sources claiming up to 87%

                  So a lot more risk for neglidgeable gain, possibly even a loss of energy. There may be some applications for it but not as a primary source of stored grid energy.

                2. Third Time Lucky

                  Size of hydrogen molecule is such that it will penetrate (diffuse) fairly rapidly through the walls of steel containers. It (and Helium – safer but less leaky) are used for leak testing in many industries. If infrastructure can’t contain large natural gas molecules (10×7) larger in size than hydrogen, then just imagine the fun trying to keep hydrogen contained.

                  1. drumlin woodchuckles

                    UserFriendly and Third Time Lucky,

                    These are real problems with trying to store huge quantities of hydrogen made at times of sur solar-wind energy to use at times of solar-wind energy shortage. But the need for some way to capture and store the sur energy for use during shortage times of no wind and/or no light is severe enough that it is worth trying to think of a workaround or a sidestepping of these problems.

                    I will offer my best lay amateur thoughts at the bottom of the thread where my margins will be wider and I won’t have to use so much vertical space to get something said.

          2. Paul Whittaker

            In Ontario we have a nuclear power station being refurbished at a cost of billions, (the estimates are always pie in the sky and the real cost usually runs 3-4 times the estimate. Back around 1974 when our peak output was about 27,000 megawatts the Hydraulic dept came up with an estimate involving small hydraulic generators placed at already existing dam sites which could double our peak output, the wheels decided to cut the Hydraulic dept budget by 50% and gave the saving to the nuclear dept. where there are lots of money involved there will be lots of corruption also. Which is part of the nuclear cost. there have been more than 3 nuclear accidents: you might check out Windscale in the UK, (renamed Sellafield after the accident). The 300 tons of radiated water flowing into the ocean from Fukushima is destroying the food supply for millions (check the cesium increase in ocean life forms). All the above just to boil water!

          3. pat b

            The world probably has 500,000 MWh = 500 GWh = 0.5 TWh of total pumped storage capability. Mark Jacobson says we need 15,000 TWh. That’s a factor of thirty-thousand.

            Are you sure you didn’t mistake TW for TWH… In Jacobson’s 2017 paper he specifies

            6 TW of New/existing storage plants.

            Sure, assume a Typical household storage battery is 15 KWH. Jacobson says we we need 15 PWH of storage. 15EE15WH of storage. We would need a 100 Million houses to start with… but
            That gives you 15EE12
            it at least cracks much of the problem for residential sector.
            Then we look at cars, assume an EV has 80 KWH, round that up to 100KWH, if you have
            a billion cars, 100 EE12,

            Then you look at broad grid scale solutions. Larger grid ties, regional solutions.

            A few economic incentives.

            In the pre-industrial, pre-oil world my father’s people lived in the Himalayas, During the winter, they would move down hill, to the winter capital and in the summer back to the hills to the summer capital.

            We may consider the incentives to that.

            1. Grumpy Engineer

              Nope. I haven’t mistaken TW for TWh. If you go to the list of large energy storage projects out there () and add them all up, you get somewhere around 360,000 MWh, which is 0.36 TWh. I rounded up to 0.5 TWh in case there were large stations missing from the list.

              We really are short by a factor of 30,000.

              That’s the problem with the Jacobson plan. It requires vastly too much energy storage. When you list 15e12 WH for household storage (totally inadequate, BTW) and 100e12 WH for a billion cars, you’re still short by a factor of 130. And could we really electrify a billion cars anyway? An earlier article on NC clearly demonstrated that we’d run into hard material constraints before we converted even 10% of that number: http://cfdtrade.info/2017/07/cobalt-production-as-the-hidden-choke-point-on-mass-conversion-to-electric-vehicles.html.

              Jacobson’s plan also calls for boosting the peak generating capability of the world’s hydro facilities by a factor of 10 by installing additional turbines in parallel. Alas, this won’t work. Many dams don’t have the physical room, and others would create horrific floods if run at 10X capacity. Between this and the stupendous energy storage requirements, Jacobson’s plan is a giant exercise in wishful thinking. It will NEVER happen.

      4. PlutoniumKun

        But the key point is this: Nuclear can provide power 24/7/365.

        This is simply untrue (any Japanese person will give a hollow laugh at this statement). Nuclear plants, like all power plants, have down time. Sometimes its scheduled, sometimes its because of drought reducing the flow of cooling water (leading to multiple simultaneous shutdowns of inland plants), sometimes As a result nuclear, just like every other form of power, needs backup in the form of redundant capacity elsewhere or long range interconnections, or storage. Nuclear power is also highly inefficient for providing for daily peak powers, so would almost always have to be paired with gas power (just like renewables). Nuclear is also terrible for small grids. In the 1980’s Ireland abandoned plans for two 800MW nuclear plants, because in a system with a base to peak daily range from 2 to 4 GW, the risk of the two plants going down simultaneously breaking the economy was too high. Ireland now has an excess of 2GW of wind power, which integrates smoothly into the overall system, and has plenty of capacity for more.

        The arguments you are presenting are a bit like most economists arguments ‘imagine a blank slate’. But power systems are not blank slates, they are legacy infrastructure and any new power system must be integrated over time. The suitability of nuclear, or renewables, depends entirely on a whole range of starting conditions. Renewables have a huge advantage over nuclear in that they can be constructed and integrated to existing systems over the lifetime of a power network, allowing for iterative changes over the 20-30 year lifespan. This is exactly what is happening in France where nuclear is gradually giving way to a variety of alternatives, both domestic renewables and imports through a new range of interconnections. This is not because the French have become anti-nuclear, but because this makes more economic sense than giant white elephants like the EPR.

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          Yes, I admit that “24/7/365” is an exaggeration, but it’s a mild one. Uptimes in excess of 90% are quite typical for nuclear power stations. And it’s not uncommon for them to run two years straight until an outage for refueling is required. And the solution for this is quite simple: Build 10 to 15 percent more nuclear stations to compensate for outages, both planned and unplanned.

          And nuclear power stations are quite capable of running in load-following mode, especially if they’re designed that way: . This is how the French successfully generate 75% of their power with nuclear. If the US did the same with nuclear, and back-filled with rest with hydro, gas-fired turbines, and even solar/wind (on days the weather was cooperative), we could easily get down to 10% of our current CO2 emissions.

          Renewables may be easier and more flexible to install, but eventually curtailments and the need for energy storage will make it cost-prohibitive. And that’ll happen LONG before we’ve reached a 90% reduction in CO2 emissions. Indeed, we’re already seeing major curtailments today:

          Renewables may be more appealing emotionally, but if we try to run 90+% of our grid with them, WE WILL FAIL. Heck, Germany is stalling at 30% () and has no clear path to further improvement. “Emissions have been stuck at roughly 2009 levels, and rose last year, as coal-fired plants fill a void left by Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power“. Whoops.

    2. Third Time Lucky

      What Fukushima should have taught us is that sometimes the ‘impossible’ happens – the tsunami that hit that coast was significantly out of what was *predicted* as a worst case scenario during its design and consent process.

      Predicted as in fit the model parameters to make the project appear sound. There were hisorical records of even larger tsunami waves at the same location, and modern predictions were available that predicted larger tsunamis. Even a peer review group from WANO advised the Japanese to move their back-up generators to auxiliary plant roofs or build new ones up in the hills. All of this was ignored because “profits”.

      The real take away should be that nuclear power and other rare but extremely dangerous event cases can’t be handled by Capitalism and /market economics. Costs, risks, rewards and punishments can’t be properly handled by the existing system. This is the same problem with human induced climate change, and the system can’t manage it. The monkeys in charge have not evolved past being only concerned with a narrow set of interests.

      Carbon sequestration, Fracking, most agricultural chemicals, and this list goes on and on, none of these “technologies” should have been given to a bunch of naked apes only a few thousand years out of making stone tools, who’s brain has remained basically unchanged.

      1. Synoia

        In a Feudal society, one learns to tell the Aristocracy what they want to hear.

        In a Capitalist society, one learns to tell the bosses what they want to hear.

        Not offending power becomes ingrained.

        After visiting Japan, I concluded the Japanese are obsequious, not polite. (Clive may disagree).

      2. False Solace

        > This is the same problem with human induced climate change, and the system can’t manage it. The monkeys in charge have not evolved past being only concerned with a narrow set of interests.

        The single-minded pursuit of power will always defeat the more holistic pursuit of power. Societies that use more resources will militarily defeat societies that use less resources (capitalists vs nature-loving hippies). Cultures that breed more drive out cultures that breed less (agriculture vs hunting-gathering). I don’t know if there’s a way to overcome this logic. It would be great if humans were wiser, but the wise humans would lose to the short-term advantage humans, and there will always be some of those.

        This is my current explanation for why the stars are silent.

        1. Ape

          Crucial. In dynamic systems you may never survive to get out of the local minima.

          But somehow evolution does do it so there may be mechanisms. Otherwise we would never have multicellular organisms.

      3. Brooklin Bridge

        Well put. This is the problem with nuclear given the potentially horrendous consequences. Trump team is a sobering burlesque of precisely your point. Look at them deregulating anything that moves and everything else that doesn’t. Applied to nuclear power plants, over time, this tends to ratchet in one direction, the bad one, even intermixed with more enlightened administrations – due to the accumulative weight of bad habits, so that failure points become far more likely than original estimates while the gravity of consequences does not diminish.

    3. Janie

      Yes, it is futile to make an environmental comparison between nuclear fuels. Use of nuclear fuels is like Descartes wager about severity of consequences that ensue from acting as if God does or does not exist.

    4. Tyronius

      We’ve been looking at this all wrong.

      The whole point of nuclear energy or coal or natural gas or even wood is purely to create heat to generate live steam with which to turn a turbine.

      If the requisite heat can be found or made elsewhere, then we don’t need either nuclear heaters or oil burners.

      Too simplistic? No;

      The Earth itself is absolutely crammed full of heat and there are geothermal features in nearly every state. Geothermal power generation isn’t technically renewable but the source is functionally limitless. It’s also non polluting.

      It is true that geothermal energy isn’t evenly distributed across the United States or even the world but it is just as true that modern power transmission grids are fully capable of solving that problem.

      Furthermore, geothermal can be built and operated as either baseload or demand load generation, which would make it extremely compatible with seasonal demand variations and intermittent renewable energy sources while dramatically reducing the need for energy storage.

      Finally, in a few cases such as Yellowstone and Mammoth Lakes, installation of geothermal power plants could draw enough heat from the area to forestall and limit the threat of a catastrophic natural disaster.

      It’s high time to take geothermal energy seriously. The only people standing against it are those who want to build more nuclear boondoggles or drill and frac our planet into oblivion.

  2. James Trigg

    I believe the Westinghouse AP-1000 could be built safely and economical if we wanted to build the reactors. We will not build them (except maybe in South Carolina ) so my stock shares in fossil fuel companies are safe. We will have political fights and much virtue signalling but CO2 will still rise. Electric cars are silly without nuclear. China will build nuclear and pass us as the leading nation of the world. Maybe that is a good thing.

  3. Synoia

    Form Electronics & Power, the publication of the UK Institute of Electrical Engineers, some time between 1968 and 1970.

    I am quoting from memory.

    Decommissioning a nuclear Power station.

    There are three stages:
    1. Removing Highly Radioactive waste
    2. Removing moderately radio active structures
    3. Protecting the public from Long Term low levels of radioactivity.

    Stage (1)
    Can be completed in a year or two. BNFL Sellafield was built in the UK to handle this waste.
    Sellafield has a record of cancer clusters, and releasing plutonium into the Irish Sea.

    Stage (2)
    Period 2 to 10 years. The reason for the delay is to allow the medium level radioactive structural material’s radio activity to decay to safer levels.

    Stage(3)
    Protect the site with a fence for 1,000 years.

    When I read this two questions popped into my mind immediately:

    1. How does one build a budget for 1,000 years of fencing and security. Who pays?
    2. How does one protect a site for 1,000 years? That is: Warn people of 5, 10 or 100 generations from now, especially if there were to be another dark age in that period?

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      Stage(3): Vitrify the mid-level nuclear waste into a sintered glass composite (per ) and then bury it a couple of miles underground.

      The oil-drilling industry has drilled holes up to seven miles deep. There is no technical reason we couldn’t do the same for purposes of burying higher-level radioactive waste. It mystifies me why people would want to store nuclear waste above ground. Near bodies of water, no less.

  4. RMO

    I’m ambivalent about nuclear power but I would like to point out one thing: “enrichment” isn’t actually a necessary part of a nuclear power program. Heavy water reactors can and do function using natural uranium. Although they have their own drawbacks they do avoid the production of significant quantities of volatile high level waste that is the inevitable product of enrichment processes. One also doesn’t need enrichment facilities to produce weapons as the plutonium produced in fission reactors is a better nuclear explosive and more efficient to produce. Fast breeder reactors and their accompanying reprocessing plants would have made for a horrific proliferation nightmare if they had actually worked for this very reason.

    1. Skip Intro

      It is a real coincidence that reactors that don’t produce plutonium have been around for decades, but no one is interested in them. Instead massive subsidies built a ‘civilian’ nuclear industry that was used, via ‘atoms for peace’ to create network of plutonium factories for the closest allies of the US, while enriching the usual contractors.
      Anyone who imagines nuclear power has as much to do with energy generation as it does with weapons production and and Military-Industrial grifting hasn’t really been paying attention. The author of this article has produced a remarkably vapid gloss:
      1. Adopting the ridiculous claim that there are no radiation casualties from Fukushima
      2. Neglecting the completely the possibility of dirty bomb attacks at the many ‘temporary’ spent fuel storage sites, as well as the weapons potential for plutonium ‘waste’.
      3. Ignoring the cash and energy costs and dangers of isolating dangerous materials for 200,000 years
      4. Getting the dangerous lifetime of nuclear waste wrong by an order of magnitude (Pu239 has a half-life of ~24,000 years, even after 10 of these there will still 0.1% of the original tons of material)
      5. Introducing a tendentious comparison with the health costs of unregulated coal plants, as if the regulatory capture that allows them were a law of nature… TINA.

      1. Aumua

        Ok, who has died from Fukushima radiation, now 7 years later? I’m not particularly pro-nuclear, at least not nuclear fission, but I would like to see your justification for calling that claim ridiculous.

        1. Skip Intro

          So you deny epidemiological methods that assign mortality rates to exposure to radioactive releases (as used for the Chernobyl figures cited above), and are also willing to ignore the crew of the USS Reagan and all the Japanese kids with thyroid tumors until we have death certificates and a story in the NYT?

          1. Skip Intro

            Please read ‘So you deny’ as ‘To accept the claim I called ridiculous one would have to deny’

            I am sorry my initial response personalized the argument.

            1. dutch

              The epidemiological methods predicting thousands of cancer deaths from Fukushima and Chernobyl are wrong. The concept of population dose is unsupportable scientifically. It is an administrative construct intended for planning purposes only.

          2. Aumua

            I’m not denying anything, I’m just asking who has died from Fukushima radiation. It’s a huge disaster, there is no doubt, and I believe it quite possible that some people probably have died not to mention animals, but I’m a little sensitive to Fukushima radiation scare bullshit cause I’ve seen it mess up some friends of mine. Certainly you’re aware that there has been some incredibly blown out of proportion hysteria spread around about it.

  5. Fred

    Aren’t reactors still build on a cost basis? Aren’t environmental lawyers going to sue and add even more costs? Aren’t the utilites going to pass these costs on to the customer? Aren’t we going to pay for these things long after they cease to function, not to mention the shut down costs? We just aren’t that desperate for engergy, especially as long as we have cheap natural gas. By the time that runs out, I’d guess solar and batteries will be working pretty well.

  6. a different chris

    Random thoughts from somebody who BTW worked in the industry.

    1) Nobody talks about negawatts. Neither in the “fun” sense, hey insulate!, or the completely verboten, “if you want to (family blog) please practice birth control”.

    2) As a financial affair the nuke industry is the bad boy lothario, he (family blog)s you – and others – ecstatically but never follows up with a ring. Or maybe a prostitute is a better example, with the government as always the final sugar daddy.

    3) Notice the past tense, “worked”. As a friend put it: “As an engineer, being a technically oriented person by attitude, I thought that nuclear power was OK. Now that I work in the industry, all I can think is SHUT THEM DOWN!! SHUT THEM ALL DOWN!!!!”.

    Per #3, we act like Iran or some (bleep)hole country would be problematical if they have nukes. Well, we couldn’t go to a plant in NJ for a little while because they launched a turbine rotor thru the roof. Yes, you say, a turbine has nothing to do with the source of steam. But my point is that a steam turbine is 100 year old technology, and these people – who were overseeing all the workings of the plant – couldn’t even get that right but Hey Lets Give Them A Reactor To Play With. Lordy.

    But you guys go ahead and argue over it, nothing I can do. How many of you nuke-boosters drive American cars? French cars? If not, why not? The difference between theory and practice is, well practice.

    1. Charles 2

      It is not because a technology is old that it is easy to master. BTW, PWR are a 50 year old technology, not that much younger that 100 year old coal based generators.

      I drive a French car and am happy with it.

  7. Callistenes

    There is perfectly good option with thorium. And coal tailings are an excellent source of thorium. You can also use nuclear waste as fuel to seed the reaction. And test reactor we ran in the 60’s proved the things are practically impossible to melt down

    1. Irrational

      Absolutely, but not talked much about nowadays.
      Not to mention that there is plenty of thorium to be extracted.

    2. pat b

      Thorium has serious problems. Particularly the production of U233 and
      neutron quenching isotopes that can’t be easily removed.

  8. Expat

    Nuclear power is a problem because of the widespread, long term risks. One more decent earthquake at Fukushima and the world dies in two years. We don’t trust the government or corporations for ephemeral, financial things. Why should we trust them for nukes?

  9. Thomas Williams

    The telling of a one sided tale leads to erroneous conclusions.

    I’ve been involved with nuclear power generation for the past 50 years and have of bit of knowledge.

    The author’s facts are correct but he omits the issues of fuel reprocessing and using ‘fast reactors’.

    Our fleet of power plants is the ‘slow reactor’ type which only captures 1-2% of the energy from a fuel rod, we then have to store it for 10,000 years. We could easily build plants which capture the energy from the fast moving particles. As the rods begin to lose potency, we re-process and re-use them. This process gets repeated until the rods are exhausted for fuel. The spent fuel rods will only need to be stored for 200 years at which point they will be safe enough to grow your tomatoes. Seven half-lives = inert, whether nuclear or in medicine.

    None of this is news. It is existing science and ‘off the shelf’ technology. Coupled with power plants using liquid sodium instead of water, we get more efficient, lower maintenance plants.

    As to uranium mining – using re-processed fuel means we can pull all the old rods out of storage and give them new life. We can re-process and use old nuclear weapons which are scattered around the world. Mankind would have no need to mine uranium for at least another 1,000 years.

    Everything I said is common knowledge. Scientific America did a multi-page article about a decade ago which covers all the same points.

    If you are going to write about a subject, you should 1-inform yourself and 2-present the FULL picture.

    I wouldn’t listen to an economist who hadn’t read Das Kapital, nor a ‘nuclear pontificator’ who did not know about re-processing and ‘fast reactors’

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You have a lot of nerve insulting the author and this site with demonstrably bogus claims. Agnotology is against our written site Policies. I am blacklisting you. Any future comments will be ripped out.

      If you were intellectually honest or informed, which you appear not to be, you would know fast breeder reactors have been deemed to be a dead end. As one reader who knows the terrain remarked, “Blimey, I didn’t realised people still talked about fast reactors.”

      Some links as to why they quit being used:


      And more detail:

      The report notes that “fast breeder” reactors already have been the focus of more than $50 billion in development spending, including more than $10 billion each by the U.S., Japan and Russia. Yet, the report further notes, none of these efforts has produced a reactor that is anywhere near economically competitive with light-water reactors … After six decades and the expenditure of the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars, the promise of breeder reactors remains largely unfulfilled and efforts to commercialize them have been steadily cut back in most countries. The reactors have been plagued by high costs, often multi-year downtime for repairs, multiple safety problems, and unresolved proliferation risks.

      And from the Financial Times in Ddecember 2016, :

      Japan is to close its Monju fast breeder reactor in a further step towards the global abandonment of a technology that once promised unlimited nuclear power with minimal waste…

      Fast breeder reactors have the potential to greatly reduce volumes of nuclear waste but the technology has been plagued by concerns about cost and safety.

      Japan’s decision to follow the US and UK in abandoning its experimental reactor suggests the breeder technology is unlikely ever to reach widespread deployment….

      The decision means only Russia, France and India will continue to operate breeder reactors. The UK closed its Dounreay site in 1994 after years of struggle with breeders and the associated Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield. The US cancelled its Integral Fast Reactor programmer the same year.

      Fast breeder reactors are designed to produce more nuclear fuel than they consume, often “breeding” plutonium from uranium, which can then be reprocessed and used as fuel. Because the same fuel is repeatedly reused they produce far less waste than conventional reactors — making breeders a prized research goal since the earliest days of nuclear power.

      But experimental reactors have been hit by problems with their liquid metal cooling systems, as well as high capital costs and concerns about nuclear proliferation due to the plutonium they produce.

      The Monju reactor suffered a serious fire after a sodium leak in 1995 and its restart was delayed until 2010. It then suffered another incident and was not operating when the Fukushima Daichi disaster struck.

    2. Charles 2

      If you are going to write about a subject, you should 1-inform yourself and 2-present the FULL picture.

      2 is impossible to do in a blog post. You would need a thick book for that, at least.
      1 is much harder than you think, because one is naturally drawn towards looking for information that confirm our own view and even when presented with information that goes contrary to our own view, it is a tremendous intellectual and emotional effort to move the needle ( I tried many times to move Yves’ needle toward nuclear and failed lamentably so far ;-) ).

      There is no choice than to let everyone go at its own pace, as frustrating as it is.

      I hope that the frustration that you had but also the frustration that Yves had (and led to the banning of commenting) will both go down so that we can resume a fruitful discussion, that would include more nuanced facts, such as :
      – fast sodium cooled reactors are not (and I quote you) “easy to build” nor easy to operate, especially in the “loop design” chosen in Monju.
      – Personally, I share Admiral Rickover assessment, but one should be conscious that he was in charge of developing nuclear reactors for military submarines where the requirement for robustness (military vessels are prone to be attacked) and the high reactivity of sodium with water were big additional problems that are less important for civilian based application.
      – fast reactors are not synonymous with sodium cooled reactors. Of the 6 reactor technologies considered by the Generation 4 forum, 4 of them are compatible with fast reactors, sodium being only one of them (the other 3 are Gas cooled (Triso fuel), Lead (or Lead-Bismuth) cooled, or Molten Salt).
      – fast reactors are still being developed, but they are clearly less of a priority because fear of lack of Uranium has subsided, thanks to demonstrated advances in Uranium extraction from seawater in the last two decades, and the maturation of laser enrichment technology that enables to squeeze even more U235 from natural uranium at lower energy cost. If fusion doesn’t arise in the 22nd century, I predict fast reactor will come back to the scene.

  10. Ignacio

    I think germany should had better use renewables to get rid from carbon before nuclear. Anycase they have shown that when there is will you can massively boost renewables.
    In Spain do-nothing Rajoy…

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      Yes. Germany has massively boosted renewables. Sadly, despite all the cost and effort, they’ve made essentially ZERO progress on reducing their CO2 emissions:

      The country of the Energiewende, the dual move to phase-out nuclear power and cut carbon emissions, has made great strides in increasing the share of renewables in power generation, but CO2 emissions have remained stubbornly high, making it increasingly unlikely Germany will reach its target of cutting emissions 40 percent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels.

      What was the point of this exercise, again?

      1. Skip Intro

        What was the point of this exercise, again?

        Nice.

        There’s moving the goal posts, then theres switching sides of the field entirely.

        I think the point of the exercise was to reduce the likelihood of a catastrophe similar to Fukushima. The fact that Germany did this without a major increase in CO2 emissions in such a short time undermines the implicit argument of the article, not to mention arguments about the absolute necessity of plutonium factories nuclear power plants to supply baseload.

      2. blennylips

        great strides in increasing the share of renewables in power generation

        Oh, you mean like this:

        Europe’s ‘renewable’ energy plan is actually destroying US forests
        Because of a loophole, the European Union classifies this wood-generated electricity as “carbon neutral,” though research actually indicates it’s more environmentally dangerous in the short term.

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          Yep. That’s how you end up with absurd results like this:

          Did the UK truly stumble onto a revolutionary way of reducing their CO2 emissions? Or did they simply start burning trees from North Carolina?

          Without the “credit” for burning forests, CO2 metrics in Europe would show that emissions are rising.

  11. Jean

    Thank you, thank you and thank you again Yves.

    “After all, it doesn’t produce greenhouse gases.”

    Here’s a shorter version to refute that nutclear horseshit.

    “[The claim that] Nuclear power is “low‐carbon electricity” … is the propaganda line commonly used by the nuclear industry which conveniently leaves out every phase of the nuclear fuel chain other than electricity generation. It ignores the significant carbon emissions caused by uranium mining, milling, processing and enrichment; the transport of fuel; the construction of nuclear plants; and the still inadequate permanent management of waste. It also ignores the release ‐ by nuclear power plants and reprocessing facilities ‐ of radioactive carbon dioxide, or carbon‐14, to the air, considered to be the most toxic of all radioactive isotopes over the long‐term.

    In fact, studies show that extending the operating licenses of old nuclear power plants emits orders of magnitude more carbon and greenhouse gases per kilowatt hour from just the uranium fuel chain compared to building and operating new wind farms.”

    Washington’s Blog

    Interesting sidebar. I googled the above to get the URL and instead got a long string of pro-nuclear power sites first, especially from the Guardian, which I believe is now controlled by George Soros who has nuclear and coal in his investment portfolio. Here’s their fawning tribute to their new honcho.

      1. blennylips

        Absolutely right, GF. Thanks for the reminder.

        Here is a piece from back in 2013 when the suit started. Lots of interviews with USS Ronald Reagan sailors.

        US Sailors Sue TEPCO for Radioactive Fallout Cover-Up
        Published on Dec 20, 2013
        US sailors and military personnel are suffering serious health effects as a result of exposure to radioactive fallout during relief efforts in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
        [17:14]

        “…taste of aluminum foil…”

    1. Skip Intro

      What’s more, building new nuclear power plants is a very CO2 intensive activity, requiring huge amounts of concrete, and a fair amount of energy for fabrication and transport of other parts. So the carbon cost of new nukes is heavily front-loaded.

  12. Susan the other

    What about that clever passive solar collector, in Spain I think, using a large array of mirrors focused on a receiving tower, and, I assuming, transmitting from there. Where is all the clever and very effective passive solar technology using much less energy to maintain than, say, wind turbines or solar collectors that have to transform solar into electricity that can be stored in expensive and very toxic batteries. Where is the passive energy movement? I’m asking because we just aren’t aggressive enough about processes that cause the least harm. And I’m an old nuclear hysteric from way back. There are so many deadly toxic sites left behind in the wake of nuclear tech that I can’t imagine anyone writing such a sanguine, lobotomized article. It has been deemed impossible (Bechtel) to clean up Hanford, Washington and the leaking cannisters are going to pollute the Columbia River imminently. Impossible. That’s not good. Not to mention that it isn’t just Fukushima that is polluting the Pacific Ocean with radionuclides of all sorts – because that meltdown has created radioactive particles that do not exist in nature – and in massive quantities because Japan’s underground fresh water runoff is carrying it there on a daily basis, but every coastal (most of them) nuclear reactor in the world which releases toxins into the air and water on a regular basis. How much of this toxic slop can the oceans take? And it will accumulate to high levels (I wonder if the oceans could explode?) because it takes not 10,000 years to become inert – it takes 25,000 years. Angela Merkel is a nuclear engineer. She shut down Germany’s reactors because she understands this stuff. Why don’t we step up to our responsibiity? Why don’t we do fusion? Are we trying to keep fusion technology a big secret for the military? How stupid.

    1. JustAnObserver

      Just to add: These passive solar collectors – aka solar thermal plants – use a much less toxic method of storing excess power for nighttime use as molten salt (Sodium Flouride @750C IIRC). Spain – preRajoy – was in the lead with this tech but it appears that Southern California has now overtaken them. The downside is that to be economic they have to be BIG so that implies the centralised generation/distribution model. has to be maintained

      Someone (No reference) calculated that 1-2% of the Sahara desert devoted to solar thermal could supply Europe’s electricity needs for the next 50 years … of course substituting Libya for Saudi Arabia as the energy choke point might not be a win.

    2. John Steinbach

      Sanguine, lobotomized article indeed. I suggest the author visit Fukushima Perfecture & talk with the victims as I did three years ago. Their suffering, both economic & medical was heart-breaking- not to mention the scores of $ billions that will be spent for a nuclear “cleanup” that will never end.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        If you chase down the 2018 UNSCEAR report referenced in the post you can locate the 2013 report by looking on the Fukushima link. The 2018 report reviews recent publications on Fukushima indicating they substantiate the 2013 UNSCEAR report. I found this paragraph from an annex to the 2013 report most informative.

        “The most important health effects observed so far among the general public and among workers were considered to be on mental health and social well-being, relating to the enormous impact of the earthquake and tsunami, causing loss of family and friends and loss of livelihood and necessitating evacuation; and the impacts of the nuclear accident, including not only further evacuation and loss of livelihood, but also fear and stigma related to real and perceived health risks associated with ionizing radiation.”
        [from Annex D. Health implications for the public and for workers paragraph 218, page 88 of the United Nations UNSCEAR 2013 REPORT]

        I guess we have nothing to fear but fear itself. [But I’m still afraid even after skimming the 2013 report.]

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          I think I may have some trust issues regarding the safety of nuclear energy: “Officials saw early on that the work posed a hazard, says Stephanie Malin, a sociologist at Colorado State University, but they didn’t tell the miners or the people living in the surrounding communities. After all, they were making a secret weapon.” — from the post

  13. Altandmain

    I think that there hasn’t been enough investment into thorium and generation 4 reactors.

    The big issue is that so many of these projects are prone to severe cost overruns. Isolating the causes is going to be a big issue. The challenge is to do this without compromising safety.

    The other that with a 100 percent reliance on renewable energy, is that it remains intermittent. I don’t think that people understand the amount of energy that would need to be stored. There are no miracle solutions. I don’t see how lithium ion batteries would be able to do it and certainly not at a reasonable price. Even nuclear has its intermittent challenges due to reactor problems. Electric grids would have to be redesigned from ground up.

    Perhaps a more advanced heavy water reactor might be worth looking at as well. No uranium enrichment required.

    “Countries with a lot of corruption, countries that lock up whistleblowers, they just shouldn’t have nuclear power,” Bunn readily admits.

    Perhaps that would disqualify the United States.

    Certainly there has been a lot of whistleblower retaliation. What happens if someone has to point out the safety risks of a particular design? They would be locked up.

  14. Lost in OR

    All this discussion about the most viable energy source. In the 44 comments preceding this one, I’ve seen one comment alluding to conservation. No technology could possibly make our current lifestyle sustainable. And there is one logical outcome to “not sustainable “.
    I love this website, especially the comments. We are, however, focused on this long slow train wreck. This whole discussion leads nowhere. It’s all just a train wreck.
    Any ideas on what to do after the revolution?

    1. Charles 2

      Die. Harsh answer, I know !

      GDP and energy consumption are the same thing. “Improvements” in energy intensity are only artefacts of faulty accounting. One is putting energy consumption under the rug by moving it to another country or not counting it or one is simply creating fake GDP by creating mutually unrecoverable debts.

      When people see the “huge potential gains” of saving energy, they forget the missed sales of the energy producers. It is a win-win for an energy importing community/country, but the effect is hard to quantify, and is likely to be small, for an energy independent community. To put it in American terms, a well isolated house for a Maine fisherman reduces the size of demand for Texan Gas, and thus Texas buys less lobsters…

      In reality, energy conservation or NegaWatts is only a matter of convincing oneself that one can be as happy with less consumption. Possible indeed, and probably necessary in the decades to come, but it won’t get humanity very far by itself. How much of your medical treatments are “inessential” ? How much of your food ? How many of your trips to see your old parents ? …

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Not always necessarily so, at least on the tiny household scale as lived by the individual householder.

        Here is a little example. Let us say I like hard boiled eggs. The normal and traditional way to hard boil the eggs is to cover them up with water and boil the water with the eggs in it till they are hard boiled. ( I forget how many minutes that is). Now . . . one COULD spend less energy cooking the eggs by boiling the eggs and water for a shorter time. We would have soft-boiled eggs. Less energy used, less results (cooking the eggs) gotten.

        But! . . . what if there is a way to have our cake both ways and eat it too? At least where hard boiling the eggs is concerned? Well it turns out there is! Put the eggs in the pot and put just a quarter of an inch of water in the bottom of the pot. Bring the water to enough of a boil that steam visibly escapes from between the pot and the lid. Then start turning the heat back DOWN until the tiniest bit of steam is just barely forcing itself out between the pot and the lid. You technically won’t be hard “boiling” the eggs. What you will be doing is hard “steaming” the eggs. But you will get them just as hard with only a small fraction of the heat input needed to boil enough water to totally cover the eggs.

        Can this logic be applied here and there elsewhere in the household? In the workplace? In production processes? Yes, it can, here and there. And that would be genuine “negawatts” from getting the same result as before with less energy inputted.

        1. charles 2

          I see that you didn’t get my point, so my explanation was certainly not clear enough.

          My point is that “negawatts” are of little help in a closed economic system (as opposed to a “tiny household” which is a very open economic system). In a closed system, the lost production of the energy producers thanks to, for example, “hard steaming” of eggs will imply a lower consumption of said energy producers because they sell less of their stuff. The economy just shrinks, and the ratio between energy and GDP remains about the same.

          This is a similar fallacy as saying that “if all economic actors are saving, the Debt/GDP ratio in the economy will just decrease”, it just doesn’t add up, one just get debt deflation.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            Hmmm. I think I see now.

            So if we make and do the same amount of everything-else-except-energy-production as before . . . throughout the Closed National-Scale Economy . . . . and the only loss of GDP we have is the loss of the GDP attributable to the less-energy-we-pay-for-and-use because we can do the same-amount-as-before of everything else with the less-than-before energy-use because we are using energy more efficiently and therefor can use less of it . . . we still suffer a loss of GDP in our overall closed economy.

            Have I understood exactly correctly the point you were making?

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Good point. But there has been more talk of energy conservation and conservation lifestyling on past threads and there could be more such talk on future threads. It all depends on how relevant such things seem to the post-in-question in its narrowly focused sense.

      I almost betcha the ” enough fracking and frack gas will let us raise the temperature by 3.6 degrees” post will attract some conservation-lifestyling comments.

  15. The Rev Kev

    From the article-
    “Countries with a lot of corruption, countries that lock up whistleblowers, they just shouldn’t have nuclear power,” Bunn (from Harvard) readily admits.” I think that the irony of this statement was lost on him.
    Nuclear power sounds really great until you remember that everyone now alive bears a trace of radioactivity from all those atom bomb test decades ago. And ten thousand years sounds almost achievable to store radioactive wastes until you remember that this is twice of long as recorded history. The United States is now 242 years old so you are talking about storing nuclear waste for over forty times the history of the United States.

    1. Charles 2

      Nuclear power sounds really great until you remember that everyone now alive bears a trace of radioactivity from all those atom bomb test decades ago.

      And meanwhile, life expectancies went up, population doubled. The reason we don’t remember it, is because it was not significant, just as breathing every time you breathe doesn’t mean anything. The ability to perform “Fermi computations” is very important to be able to have reasonable discussions.

      The United States is now 242 years old so you are talking about storing nuclear waste for over forty times the history of the United States.

      I know it is a hard concept for some americans, but the world isn’t circumscribed to the US of A, nor started 252 years ago (and not 4,000 years ago “as the Bible said” either !). Please consider this 4,500 year old , still standing
      and where there is apparently some rooms that .

      1. The Rev Kev

        OK. I’ll try again for you. I only used the example of the United States here as that is the home of NC as well as many of the people that come here (I myself live about 15,000 kilometers that-away). Sure there are buildings thousands of years old but it is political institutions that must deal with the results of radioactive wastes, not buildings. Know of any examples of stable political institutions that might go for 10,000 years that could be trusted to deal with radioactive wastes? No?
        And as far as life expediencies going up and population doubling? Not sure what that has got to do with anything. FYI, life expediencies are heading back down in some countries and do you really think that the doubling of world population is really a sign of progress? Try this on for size. Our bodies were never designed to be irradiated – not even a little. Does anybody know what the long term effect will be on human genomes of this acquired radioactivity? It took way too long to learn what the effects were from all the lead acquired from car exhausts alone.
        If you are still not sure about the subject of nuclear waste, check this out-

        1. UserFriendly

          Our bodies were never designed to be irradiated – not even a little.

          Which is why every single person that has walked in sunlight has instantly died, like a vampire.

          1. The Rev Kev

            And getting a suntan at Shirahama beach in Japan is not the same as spending the weekend at a holiday resort at Fukushima :-)

            1. UserFriendly

              No it isn’t. But and then explain to me why we aren’t all dead and how anyone outside of the immediate area of the meltdown had any risk.

              1. UserFriendly

                Oh, and in case you wanted to make the argument that power plants have a lot more radioactive material, I did the math a while ago and theyhave roughly 100 times more, so even if 100% of the radioactive material escaped from a meltdown (Probablly less than 25% actually did) globally we have definitely been exposed to more radiation from testing bombs then meltdowns with no apparent side effects.

            2. UserFriendly

              Like I said in my comment at the bottom that is sitting in moderation for some reason I’ve given up on trying to talk sense to people about nuclear. You know it’s a horrible idea in the same way Rachel Maddow knows Russia elected Trump. Just throw the baby out with the bathwater; there is no minimize risks and search for improvements, it’s all ban it 100%. No recognition that climate change and sea level rise would make nuclear power the better option even if we had 1 Fukushima level meltdown a year. It’s magical thinking of the worst kind that like everything else in this neoliberal nightmare will effect my generation and kids younger than me the hardest.

              1. Louis Fyne

                horses have left the barn. the oceans will get acid-fied on a diet of 66% natural gas and 34% renewables.

                Fundamentalists can’t have a rational dialogue about religion, many environmentalists can’t have a rational dialogue about nuclear fission

                1. Louis Fyne

                  ps, i’m very aware of all the negatives of fission. my argument is that getting the oceans acid-fied via a portfolio of natural gas/fracking + renewables is even worse.

              2. The Rev Kev

                Just now read your comments. OK, consider this. The Japanese government are allowing people back into the Fukushima region but they are nearly really old people. Young families are refusing point blank to go back. The reason why the Japanese are not worried about letting old people back in is that (a) they are too old to have children who would be deformed by the background radioactivity and (b) the same radioactivity will kill them eventually but they are so old, they will be dead of old age before the radiation does them in.
                If Fukushima was a dam that broke and not a nuclear plant, the whole place would have been completely rebuilt by now and all the inhabitants would have moved back into their rebuilt homes. Tell me again which century they will be able to do this again?

                1. UserFriendly

                  Even if they weren’t evacuated and they all died that would still make nuclear power the least deadly way to generate power. See the links in my other comment.

                2. charles 2

                  all the inhabitants would have moved back into their rebuilt homes.

                  Except the thousands of inhabitants who would have died drowning in the dam water, as in . I don’t want to minimise the pain and the stress of evacuees from the nuclear accident, but they didn’t die.

                  Tell me again which century they will be able to do this again?

                  Happy to help : About 10 half lives of Cesium 137 so reduce the exposure by a factor 1000, which is about 300 years, so 24th century give or take.

  16. Charles 2

    This is quite a balanced view of nuclear energy. it gets some facts wrong (it is possible to make bomb without enrichment using CANDU reactors for instance) but most right. What surprises me is that Yves interprets it as an indictment of nuclear power, whereas I interpret it in much more favorable terms, . I think this difference comes more from a difference of appreciation of the risk/reward of energies alternate to nuclear than a difference of appreciation of the risk/reward of nuclear itself. I.e. nuclear “apologists” reach the “nuclear” conclusion not because they dismiss the risks of nuclear power but because they are more sensitive to the risks of the alternative, whether this alternative is fossil carbon fuels, renewable or diminution of energy consumption.

  17. Charles 2

    There’s no perfect solution for spent fuel, but there’s no perfect solution for any kind of energy waste, Stimson Center’s Vestergaard says.

    Actually, I believe we are currently seeing the emergence of the perfect solution for nuclear waste : reusable rockets. Once this technology has achieved the cost and reliability that we have with passenger planes today, it will be possible to send casks of radioactive waste to space, and never hear from them any more.
    Let me be clear : I am talking 22nd century rockets here not 21st. SpaceX BFR rocket is to 22nd century rocketry what a modern jet is to “Spirit of Saint Louis”.

  18. The Rev Kev

    OK, how about I put forward another argument here about the dangers of using nuclear reactors for energy. There is a series at YouTube by a bunch of urban explorers called “Fukushima the series” and there are several film clips that you can see. It is at and their blurb says-

    “Bob and Frederik go to the abandoned cities of Fukushima to see the aftermath of the terrible disaster that happened on march 11, 2011. An 9.0 earthquake caused huge tsunami waves which caused a nuclear fallout. Over 200.000 people fled and most of them never came back… In this series we explore abandoned supermarkets, stores, pachinko halls, schools, houses, garages with cars, etc.”

    If another power source like a dam goes bust, after the emergency response is done it is soon becomes apparent that the disaster area is being rebuilt and usually better than ever. After a nuclear reactor goes bust, well, you can forget that option. Check out the film clips. And if someone goes there to argue the economics of nuclear power and its supposed benefits to global warming I will tell you what will happen. The Japanese police will arrest them and force them to leave the area because it is so dangerous.

  19. UserFriendly

    This article is a lot better than I was expecting. The comments were about exactly what I was expecting.

    I just didn’t have it in me to argue today. All the Fukushima fear mongering makes me sick. The only people that could be hurt by that amount of radiation exposure would have to be very close to the reactor during meltdown (i.e. crew of the USS Reagan). Even with those deaths the only power production method less deadly than nuclear is hydroelectric, it’s about tied with wind and everything else is much worse (including solar). But talking to hardcore abolitionists about nuclear is worse than trying to talk to Rachel Maddow about Russia, Russia, Russia. You know what you know and nothing will change your mind. Exxon Mobil owes you more than you’ll ever know.

    Nuclear isn’t perfect, especially water reactors. But instead of saying ‘global warming is clearly the bigger threat, what can we do to minimize risks with the current generation of reactors while working on better ones’ everyone wants to throw the baby out with the bath water. As usual, It will be my generation that has to deal with the majority of the fallout from this like the 6 feet of sea level rise by 2100, so on behalf of us thanks for letting your gut trump reason

  20. Steve Ruis

    I stopped reading when I got to “After uranium ore is milled into yellow cake, it goes through an enrichment process where centrifuges spin uranium to transform it into nuclear fuel. Keep that fuel spinning longer, and it eventually turns into the stuff that can level cities.” This process has been described in our educational system since just after World War 2 and this is the level of understanding? The centrifugal process doesn’t transform anything. It separates the heavier U-238 isotope (aka version) of uranium from the more fissionable U-235 isotope/version. In order to get enriched uranium, all you have to do is create a new mixture of uranium that has the more reactive isotopes in it. The U-238 isotope of Uranium is radioactive, but so mildly that it has almost no use.

    I am not a fan of nuclear power for the simple reason that we cannot prevent accidents, no matter how careful we are. we cannot protect such facilities in the event of war or terrorism, no matter how careful we are. And we cannot yet deal with the level and lifetime of waste from such a process.

    1. blennylips

      The U-238 isotope of Uranium is radioactive, but so mildly that it has almost no use

      “Almost” does a lot of work there!

      The less radioactive and non-fissile uranium-238 constitutes the main component of depleted uranium.

      If you’ve a strong stomach, find the images that match the search “depleted uranium fallujah birth defects” — better you do not.

      U.S. Depleted Uranium as Malicious as Syrian Chemical Weapons

      Fallujah 12 years on: Americans ‘last people to consider’ generations crippled by depleted uranium

      Too bad Cheney et Rumsfeld’s Precautionary Principle only applied to yellow-cake in aluminum tubes…

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        I believe the DU does its toxicity in the same way that lead does . . . through being such a heavy nucleus that it can attractionally derange and warp protein molecules right around it. And since U is such an even heavier element, it can derange protein shapes even more effectively around its even heavier nucleus.

        Am I wrong? Are there other mechanisms?

        1. blennylips

          drumlin, I like that image of little U-238 black holes warping the fabric of proteinhood. Any alteration to shape would change its functioning.

          I had in mind a bunch of “hot particles”, absorbed through food, air, and water, randomly shooting off alpha-rays (aka helium nuclei) leaving behind a newly minted thorium atom…a whole cascade in fact.

          1 gram of U-235 (half life 4.5 billion yrs) has 12,300 disintegrations per second.
          ()
          Not that you could ingest that much (I hope), but you get the picture.

          That’s a lot of Cellular Russian Roulette.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            I don’t know how all-the-way depleted the DU really is. If it still contains 1 atom of U235 per billion atoms of U238, ingesting and/or inhaling a few trillion atoms of DU could still give you many thousands of U235 atoms to work their radiolytic damage right alongside the protein deformation wrought by several trillion passively-sitting-there U238 atoms.

            Depleted Uranium wasn’t used in munitions for any fissioning-explosive reason, because it can’t explosively fission. It wasn’t/ isn’t used to do radioactive damage either. It is used because it is so very hard and heavy. It is used for “shaped eutectic rounds”. Shaped eutectic rounds are long thin hard rods of some very hard and heavy metal with a very high melting point. They are at the leading tip of some kind of very fast moving round designed to make the end of the round hit the tank armor end-on. The shaped impacting-rod would be traveling so fast that it would compress and deform itself enough to generate enough internal friction to become several thousand degrees hot. At several thousand degrees hot, its forward speed would melt a hole for it right through the tank armor. But the pressure it was under would keep it from melting, so it would stay narrow-face rod-shaped enough to melt its way through the tank armor and enter the crew-space inside the tank. When it entered the crew space, the instant relief from pressure would allow the several-thousand-degrees hot metal rod to instantly vaporise into hot metal gas filling the crew-space with hot metal-gas-vapor and instantly killing the crew. As soon as the metal-gas cooled enough to “re-solidify” it would re-solidify into millions of tiniest-possible metal particles . . . a fine dust all over the tank and the nearby battlefield as the metal-gas jetted back out of the hole in the tank.

            I found a little animation of “the effects of four different types of anti-tank rounds” without labeling or voice explanation. But just from the animation itself, I believe the fourth little animation sequence shown is depicting what a shaped eutectic round does.

            When these rounds were first invented, they were made of tungsten. Tungsten is expensive. At some point, someone must have decided that DU was cheaper than tungsten . . . DU was an unwanted waste product of the Uranium enrichment process after all . . . so why not turn DU from a troublesome waste into a lucrative material for making shaped eutectic rounds with? It wasn’t used “for” the after-use” landscape poisoning effect. It was used to kill tanks. The “after-use” landscape poisoning effect was realized only after a lot of tank-killing usage of DU for shaped eutectic rounds. Once that was discovered, it has been received and treated with grand indifference by the services which contract to buy the rounds. If the whole nationload of citizens were so offended by the landscape poisoning effects of spent DU-round uranium dust that the whole nation could torture the government into torturing the defense establishment into going back to using tungsten for shaped eutectic rounds, the defense establishment would go back to letting contracts for using tungsten for those rounds. It all depends on just how badly how much of the public cares about this issue. Badly enough to torture whole defense-industrial systems into dropping DU and going back to tungsten for shaped eutectic rounds?

            ( I welcome any correction or revision from seriously knowledgeable military or military-technology people. I am just a lay amateur science buff. I am just doing the best that I can).

            1. PlutoniumKun

              It was originally assumed that DU was safe because the projectiles would remain intact during use. I recall it was back in the 1980’s that it was discovered that there was a very high level of Uranium contamination on military target grounds in Scotland where A-10’s practised attacking tanks – the DU rounds were disintegrating and scattering contaminated dust. They switched to using ‘softer’ targets at sea.

              It was probably a reasonable assumption to make that in the event of a hot war in Europe between NATO and USSR armies, DU contamination would be the least of anyones problems. But the use of those rounds in places like Iraq is IMO immoral, they must have known they’d leave a legacy that could kill countless civilians over a long period of time. Its the more modern version of Agent Orange.

              1. drumlin woodchuckles

                I find it hard to believe that the designers of shaped eutectic rounds believed these projectiles would remain intact after entering the crew quarters of the tank. Isn’t the explosive vaporisation of the super-heated compression-front eutectic metal the entire mechanism of the total destruction of everything within the crew quarters? And therefor isn’t this explosive vaporisation of the eutectic material what was deliberately designed for right from the start? I wonder if the people who pretended to originally assume that the DU projectiles would remain intact upon use were simply lying right from the start about what they “assumed”.

                I also wonder . . . if we go back to tungsten projectiles, so that we are covering battlefields with tungsten dust instead of with DU dust . . . how would tungsten dust affect the health of all who inhale it or ingest it?

  21. Scott1

    As population grows civilization needs more & more energy.
    As much as human beings are divided they face together the same needs.

    I was at Three Mile Island on the Connie Chung Show “10 Years After” in Middleton outside of Harrisburg and remember a Technician in a Control Room smiling about having a job because the Nuclear Power plant was still running all but one of the stacks. I believe he had Thyroid Cancer.

    The Unified Theory of everything has been elusive.
    The Unified World Power System is elusive.

    Uruguay was reported to have converted to 95 percent Renewable Energy Sources over 10 years.
    Using 5 percent less electricity for the same result is possible I should estimate.

    Energy is an engineering problem to be enabled by the power of the Economy.
    A National Energy System for the US can be engineered & paid for by the Sovereign Wealth Economic System.

    So it is a problem for Gov. Funded Financial Engineers and the Engineers who apply what we know of science.

    There is evidence that Private Industry as represented by the established Energy Companies, Power Companies will not come together and pay for from their finite funds a US Unified Renewables Power System. However the Uruguayan Parliament gave its Engineers the engineering problem that was solved for the nation to the extent it has been would be practical to learn & imitate.

    Solution System Provided. A Bill for Funding is introduced in either the House or the Senate. The Energy Bill is voted on and the Treasury provides the money.
    Such would be the ideal, for the US & the foundation for a nascent world government.

    World Power Corporation? Corporation as Public Service Institution was the Founders original requirement of the organization. Respect for the power of the corporate structure was within them.
    Financial Engineering now is primarily that developed for the mob by Meyer Lansky. We need to adopt the Henry Petroski Financial Engineer type that is distinguished by a Civil Engineering tradition of public good goals.
    The Goal Matters a great deal.

    Government is to me Systems engineering. It looks as if the Parliamentary System of Democracy is the best. This was the system put in place with Uruguay.

    Historian Barbara Tuchman recommended post Nixon the US adopt the Parliamentary System.
    The problem that engineers have to solve as regards Safety & Supply of Power for World Civilization, is how to simplify handling & supply, while integrating the power generation multiples of methods, meaning all sources appear to the human hand as, a plug or a bottle.

    Safety first may well eliminate the use of nuclear methods to be replaced near the oceans by power from the movement of all that 8 pound a gallon water cooling being the entire purpose of one hydropower generator for superconductor generating & transmitting systems.

    Inland Solar & Rivers are to be the systems.

    I am just dreaming and the job that will be finished is one for engineers and only the elastic treasury can pay for the best, or would even have the will to pay for the most pragmatic solutions.

    Here I attempted to read the article and as many of the comments possible.
    I was caused to try to identify technical engineering issues, and the solutions systems that have been engineered, even those called private, or public, local or global.
    It is a comment to an article about what nuclear power really means, and why it is still attractive. It is still attractive to achieve more than civilian uses power, represented by the ultimate in defensive weaponry.

    To address the problem here I have done to the best of my ability appropriate to the forum.
    Thanks

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Uruguay probably had a small enough and weak enough power-grid establishment that it could proceed without legacy grid-master opposition.

      We have huge power industries, coal gas and oil industries, etc. They would mount total opposition to what you suggest if we were to try it in this country. We would have to exterminate the power and perhaps the physical existence of those industries in order to exterminate the bitter-ender opposition they would mount to your plan. We might have to have a Civil War as violent as the Russian Civil War waged from 1918 to 1922 or so, if we wanted to do this head-on.

      Squeamish people like me who fear violence would probably rather get involved with tiny little regional-local efforts to unplug their immediate jurisdictions from the Dominant Energy Society. Squeamish people like me might prefer to get involved in Transition Town type activities where we live . . . or move to places which would permit such activities to be pursued to successful conclusion. Power Down/ Transition Town.
      And give up on “the rest of the nation”.

      The “OTHER” other thing we could do would be for those people who care about this stuff to Live Their Witness in public view in hopes of growing an organically-building movement to shift the whole society around us to adopting your plan in many steps and stages, eventually leaving the Merchants Of Carbon so surrounded and socially isolated and hated that they become too demoralized and defeatist to mount the kind of ferocious opposition they would otherwise mount if we tried your plan “all at once.”

  22. Paul Whittaker

    Having posted a response to the nuclear debate, it disappeared. Is there a time lag to these posts or is the process working as intended?

  23. drumlin woodchuckles

    Third Time Lucky and UserFriendly,

    Here are my couple of hopeful lay-amateur thoughts about how to store hydrogen as part of a bigger molecule which can meet the level-of-compression-needed problem and the tiny-atoms-leak-through-steel problem.

    I remember once hearing long ago about some system or other which used ammonia ( NH3) as a hydrogen storage chemical by means of forcing a fourth H atom onto the ammonia molecule, working it up into an ammonium molecule ( NH4). My thought is that sur renewably-produced electricity could be used to electrolyze hydrogen out of water molecules. The free hydrogens could be jammed onto ammonia molecules which could be stored until energy is re-needed. At times of energy need, a hydrogen could be taken back off of each NH4 and the free hydrogen then re-oxidised ( burned) to get back most of the energy which went into splitting the water molecules into H and O to begin with. The system would be built with enough NH3 on hand that we could add Hs to the NH3s to store the energy embodied in the electrolyzed H atoms, and then take H back off the NH4 and re-oxidise it to water and energy for use generating electricity. And back and fourth round and round the NH3 to NH4 to NH3 to NH4 to etc. etc. etc. cycle.

    Here is a link to an article about a version of that concept.

    Here is another hopeful article.

    I also have another thought about how to store hydrogen while sidestepping the problems referrenced.
    At least a year ago now, someone wrote in a NaCap thread about how several decades ago a mid-sized oil company, maybe Atlantic Richfield, was doing some speculative research on what to do with the solid carbon residue after every possible liquid and semi-liquid had been refined and rendered out of oil. Atlantic Richfield ( or whomever) was said to have discovered that if the petcoke residue was super filled with super-many tiniest little pores ( something like activated charcoal), that hydrogen atoms would be attracted to all the negative binding sites and would adsorb onto all the pore-surfaces so tightly as to become almost a “para-liquid” at basically atmospheric temperatures and pressures. The petcoke would store it by adsorbing it, and would prevent leakage-through-the-tank-sides from being a problem by keeping it stuck to the surfaces of the petcoke pores. Sur electricity-electrolized hydrogen could be fed into huge tanks full of activated petcoke where it would pack in and para-liquidize all by itself. It could be stripped back out for burning when needed, and then put right back in there again for the next time of need.

    Hope that helps. If it doesn’t, well I tried.

    1. Third Time Lucky

      Anhydrous Ammonia was used as chemical weapon during WWI, that should do, but for extra icing on the cake the Ammonia fertiliser production and transport industry is so dangerous that that it has it’s own accident reporting stats, safety standards, etc separate from the rest of the chemical process industry.

      No idea if Petcoke process is cost effective, That it hasn’t been used widely suggests no. See crappy safety record vs massive scale of Anhydrous Ammonia for reference as to low barrier for all other concerns.

      No vast conspiracy to work against alternatives. It’s just that capitalism and the under developed human societal brain always favours the short term cheapest route…even if the very final stop is mass suicide, individuals. the human brain is also favours short term rewards, small groups over large groups, etc. This is what Socrates and Plato were trying to inoculate against.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Using anhydrous ammonia as a weapon and using it as a way to store H atoms for sur energy storage are two different uses with no relevance to eachother. Chlorine was used as a weapon in WWI but that doesn’t rule out chlorine as useful in treating water. And generating the accident-stats on anhydrous ammonia is part of the process of containing its dangers enough to keep it in widespread use for various things.

        So I think the idea of using anhydrous ammonia as a storage vehicle for electrolized hydrogen is an idea that should be accepted or rejected on its energy merits. Storing it in place and overengineering that place to prevent any accidents or leaks . . . and protecting that place against any mishaps or attacks . . . should solve the problem of hazard and danger.

        I also don’t know anything about the potential cost effectiveness or not of activated petcoke. From what I read, those patents were filed back before global warming was acknowledged to be a concern. Now that it is an acknowledge concern, and now that we have “renewable” energy harvesting technologies, and now that lack of cyclical sur “renewable” energy storage for use during cyclical shortage intervals is considered a major barrier to the wider-spread roll-out of “renewable” energy technologies, perhaps the cost-effectiveness of using activated petcoke to store hydrogen as a para-liquid at atmospheric pressures and temperatures will be assessed in a whole new way . . . . if enough people even hear about it to even begin the cost-effectiveness analysis process.

        Sometimes things are not adopted due to short-term interest reasons. But sometimes things are not adopted due to not even being known about beyond the fringes or backwaters. Dragging those things and possibilities into the light of mainstream awareness might at least begin the process of thinking about them in their own terms to see if they have merit or not.

        Here is an example of the “lost art” status of some things which might have objective merit if they were to be brought back into mainstream awareness. The “lost art” of solar refrigeration. The Crosley “Icy Ball” little refrigerating or even freezing unit.

        1. UserFriendly

          I’m all for studying new technologies, but I think activated carbon is not all that promising for this application. First off, the ability of activated carbon to store anything is determined by the pore size on the carbon, something that to the best of my knowledge we don’t have a cost effective way of controlling on any large scale level. I did a little looking around and and their best results to date:

          For hydrogen, our best storage capacity is 40 g hydrogen/liter carbon and 80 g hydrogen/kg carbon (8 mass%) at 700 psi and liquid nitrogen temperature, which is about 90% and 130% of the 2010 DOE volumetric and gravimetric target for hydrogen (excluding cryogenic components), respectively, and better than that of any previous carbon in the literature.

          And I shouldn’t have to tell you 700 psi and liquid nitrogen temps is probably not going to happen on the scale required for grid storage.

          Besides the safety concerns with Ammonia, that isn’t a reaction that would happen. What happens to the electrons on hydrogen?
          NH3 + H2 -> NH4+ + H- ?
          H- is super not stable and this reaction would not happen.
          You could turn it into an acid first:
          H2+Cl2 -> 2HCl
          HCl + NH3 -> NH4+ CL-
          But you would have a hell of a time making that reversible.

          Scratch that your description isn’t at all what the links are talking about. The links propose a hypothetical composition / decomposition reaction of NH3 using electrolysis of H2O as the H2 source. Ammonia composition is probably the most widely used commercial chemical reaction so that is a very well known entity. The decomposition less so, but looks somewhat promising. They are both catalyst based reactions and the decomposition catalyst seams to degrade with use. Both of the reactions require HUGE temperature variations and they use a heck of a lot of heat exchangers to try and minimize the heat waste. There is always either N2 or O2 that needs to be stored as a liquid but they save energy by using heat exchangers when switching. Even with all that they approximate a round trip energy efficiency around 60%-70%. They estimate that the cost of a 1MW storage plant to be much higher than pumped hydro but that there would be significant savings when scaling to a 100MW storage plant. There are a couple other possible concerns like diffusion causing loss of gases over time, impurities making it into the gases, occasional side reaction like the formation of NO2, and the fact that they designed the whole thing to run to completion one way and then reverse and run to completion the other. In the real world that isn’t what would be required and it isn’t clear to me that they have thought much about how to address that.

          All that said it is an interesting idea and if I was the monopoly man or king for a day I’d say go build a pilot plant and see how well your model actually works.

          1. blennylips

            Hydrogen storage is looking a lot like fusion power: just a decade or two away! Pinky swear! This, from last January: “The Long Wait for Fusion Power May Be Coming to an End – Futurism” after some further finite number of friedman units…

            I remember all the cool kids were talking about zeolites for hydrogen storage back in the nineties:

            by J Weitkamp – ‎1995 – ‎Cited by 318

            It is a very difficult problem.

          2. drumlin woodchuckles

            Well . . . it seemed like a beautiful idea. I hope somebody keeps researching various aspects of it to see if the problems can be solved. I wonder if one can better control pore size in the activation process of activating petcoke than one can control it for charcoal. Oh well . . .

            In the widest scope, the only way that renewable energy will meet our needs is if we can shrink our needs all the way down to a size that the modest yield of renewable energy will be able to meet.

            Otherwise, its coal, gas, oil and nuclear turtles all the way down.

  24. Jen

    The author of “Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts- A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff” (), he mentions that actually nuclear produced electricity has caused lesser deaths per unit of electricity produced than solar and fossil fuels. The problem is that the upfront costs are very high so no private player is willing to take them up. Hence unless the public sector comes up it will be unsuccessful or be compromised by design like Fukushima built by TEPCO.

  25. Patrick Donnelly

    Most of you miss the point!

    This is not about gneration of power. It is about transforming uranium into plutonium and acquiring tritium in order to make fusion “devices”.

    Iran will sell its tritium for more uranium. Drumpf may not have been told that!

    Antimatter maybe being harvested in space by the robot space plane, but more likely from the colliders. Anti matter leaves no trace but can ignite tritium. Expect strange explosions, no radiactive isotopes to betray the authors, like those that occurred in China some time ago.

    What happened to Fukushima can easily happen to Europe and USA. Have fun with power so cheap, it will not be metered!!! Suckers!

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