Thursday, March 17, 2011

Rethinking Nuclear

You don't want to be reactionary, but I admit I feel like I lost the plot on nuclear energy the last couple of years. I was against nuclear power, but softened, influenced by some rethinking within the environmental community, particularly alternatives to carbon fuels. Prepared to accept nuclear as part of the mix, you weighed increasing demand with global warming concerns and it suddenly seemed acceptable. In addition, the lack of any real "incidents" in a generation, one starts to believe the "safe" claims, you become complacent.

Again, I don't want to come off as reactionary, but I'm amended my appeasing mentality- we simply can't afford TO have nuclear power. The risks, no matter how small, are dwarfed by the consequences. Re-reading some of the facts on Chernobyl, you realize it will be 10000 years before the area is habitable again, then understand how many "accidents" we've had in .5% of that time frame, the numbers just don't add up.

Nuclear energy requires perfection, it requires that every eventuality is covered, there is ZERO margin of error. The idea of no unforseen events, the notion that you can GUARANTEE something, well we all know that this standard is logically impossible. You hear the claims of industry, you note the rigid standards, the backup plans and you begin to accept. Then you witness the events of this week and you realize you were lulled into a intellectual sleep.

You don't get do overs with nuclear, you don't get to say "oops", you don't get to say "well this was an extraordinary situation", because it's over, the effects far to severe, the very existence of the usage looks MAD. The idea that things are better now, this could never happen with the latest technology, again I now see as just more "security blanket" rhetoric, because there are no absolutes here, we don't know everything, every scenario isn't known, even the most minisule of possibilities results in the most nightmare of results. We don't get to leave this planet, we destroy it, we destroy ourselves. There are other means to generate power, maybe more expensive, more restrictive, but available none the less- factor in the risk quotient, they look CHEAP by comparison.

Improvements will be made, the entire industry will progress to a better place, the idea that this will "never happen again" stated clearly, and yet it will all be speculation, because probabilities are just that. Nightmare scenarios happen, scenarios our human brains haven't yet conceived can happen, you can never get to 100%, and with this technology, anything less simply isn't good enough. I'm a bit disappointed in myself that I required this event to bring me back to sober reality, but I guess if it does wake me, and others, from our collective slumber, that might be the only good to come out of this horrific event.


Saskboy said...

The only argument FOR nuclear power is that it produces less climate change than other forms of "base-load" on demand electricity. That plus though is dwarfed by the expense to set it up, and shut it down, then spend thousands of years guarding the waste with no economic production to speak of. If you stop guarding the waste, it becomes a terrorist's dirty bomb - worse than the people of Tokyo and area are experiencing now.

If there were "intergenerational crimes", nuclear power would be one of the worst, of many.

Saskboy said...

And in the interest of promoting my latest pun, let me assange your fears about nuclear power regulation.

Shiner said...

The only argument FOR nuclear power is that it produces less climate change than other forms of "base-load" on demand electricity. That plus though is dwarfed by the expense to set it up, and shut it down, then spend thousands of years guarding the waste with no economic production to speak of.

I assume you have numbers to back that up, yes? That nuclear power is less efficient than traditional forms of power production measured in both power generation and environmental damage against production and waste management?

Brammer said...

You can't compare CANDU technology to Chernobyl. CANDU is orders of magnitude safer in terms of fail safe systems and redundant protection. Are they 100% absolutely, positootingly beyond-a-doubt guaranteed not to cause harm? No.

Renewable energy sources are growing, but will not be able to provide baseline energy for the foreseeable future.

Not trying to be reactionary, but inless you want Ontario to return to an agrarian society, we absolutely have to have the nukes to do the heavy lifting.

Steve V said...

"Renewable energy sources are growing, but will not be able to provide baseline energy for the foreseeable future."

Not sure that's true, with China manufacturing going big on solar in particular, every single day the numbers get better and better. It's not that far away, if there is will, we can rely on solar. In addition, if you believe there is an environmental COST, health cost with carbon and nuclear, the math sways even more.

On your comment about orders of magnitude, that's true, but as I said in my post, guarantees are impossible, we are stuck with probabilities. Not good enough in this instance. Again, not trying to be reactionary, but I'm stepping back from my "resigned to" thought process, I was deluding myself.

Dan F said...

Prepare for a very vocal response from the pro-nuke folks. Its a big industry, and people devote their entire lives to the science of nuclear energy. It is extremely complex, and those who know about it have invested countless hours in it.

On the other hand, most of the anti-nuke folks are less educated on the science, but extremely passionate about their views. Radiation is scary, and invisible. There is definitely an element of psychological trauma involved in contemplating a nuclear disaster.

I've been reading everything I can get my hands on, and it is certainly a polarizing debate.

It will be interesting to see how Japan copes with the loss of up 40% of their electricity generating capacity overnight. If they come through it by making homes and offices super-efficient, and put a solar panel on every rooftop, then this might be a turning point in the history of energy production and consumption.

Steve V said...

"this might be a turning point in the history of energy production and consumption."

I think you're right, and if you look at market reactions away from uranium plays to solar, natural gas, they would tend to agree.

Holly Stick said...

The thing is, when they say something meets safety standards, are they lying? What defense do we have against greedy dishonest corporations and lazy corrupt governments?

Read Greg Palast about this:

Steve V said...

You have to wonder when a stupid "seal fails" and you have a release of 37000 litres of heavy water. I know minor in comparison, but you have to wonder how it is even possible?? Doesn't breed confidence, that's for sure.

JimBobby said...

I just posted something on the so-called safety advantage of CANDU technology. It's a myth.

The Mound of Sound said...

"What defense do we have against greedy dishonest corporations and lazy corrupt governments?" Gee, Holly, I don't know. Maybe we should ask Exxon and Dick Cheney.

I was stridently anti-nuke until I began exploring fourth and fifth-generation "fast" reactor technology. Among other things, it can burn up those supposedly "spent" fuel rods that we'll otherwise have to store securely for thousands of years. Older technology uses only about 20% of the radioactive energy in those rods. They can also eat weapons-grade fissile materials, something else we really need to find some means of eliminating. Best of all they don't produce enhanced radioactive waste that can be used for weapon production.

As for the radiation leaking in Japan, what have you learned about the half-life of this particular stuff? You really should check that out.

Better yet, go to Barry Brook's web site, for an up to date analysis of what exactly is happening in Japan. He's an expert on this stuff and can dispel much of the rumours and sensationalism.

Remind me, how many workers died in the Deepwater Horizon disaster and how many have lost their lives to date in Japan to the reactor disaster?

I'm not coming down on the side of nuclear power, not yet, but it troubles me that so many of us are coming to some pretty hasty, emotion-driven conclusions.

I do know a number of professional enviro-types and they're profoundly worried that half-informed panic will doom the nuclear option and leave us even more reliant on fossil fuels.

Steve V said...

"Remind me, how many workers died in the Deepwater Horizon disaster and how many have lost their lives to date in Japan to the reactor disaster?"

I don't understand that comparison, nor do I understand why you posit it as an either/or scenario. And if you must, get back to us in a few years with your STATS. Exactly.

Just saw an nuclear expert on CBC, hard to even fathom the word "sensational", it's an utter disaster no matter how much proponents say "remain calm".

Saskboy said...

Brammer you're not correct. Solar thermal power plants exist today, and provide base load power into the night. Back those up with some coal plants, and we're much better off ecologically and financially than building nuclear power plants. We could have every home in Canada powered primarily by renewable power within 10 years if we put our industry and hearts toward that goal. Powering industry with renewables is admittedly more tricky, but if we don't use our one time shot with fossil fuels now to build a renewable power grid, you can ENSURE we'll be agrarian for a lot longer and sooner than you think.

Shiner, I don't know what you're asking, I didn't say what you paraphrased. Nuclear power is a traditional form of power production, it's half a century old! The numbers to prove my point are on your hydro bill if you're in Ontario (still paying for power plants not in production), and they are in the logic I presented regarding the safe storage of waste.

As others have pointed out, CANDU is not safe. It's not as dangerous as Japan's reactors, but the leaking of coolant into waterways still exist as a imminent threat for one example. There is also dirty-bomb suitable waste produced.

JimBobby said...

"Remind me, how many workers died in the Deepwater Horizon disaster and how many have lost their lives to date in Japan to the reactor disaster?"

11 men died in the Deepwater Horizon blast.

About 180 technicians are on a suicide mission at Fukushima. These heroes are taking on more radiation in one hour than a nuclear plant worker normally gets in 20 years. They will die just as 1000's of "liquidators" died from radiation poisoning from Chernobyl.

The 10's of 1000's of Japanese who died instantly in the tsunami are going to be the lucky ones. The ones who will suffer cancer in the weeks, months and years ahead will wish they'd been so lucky.

Most serious environmentalists are anti-nuke. There are some astroturfers like Patrick Moore, paid by the nuke industry, who shill for the industry. When global warming started to become an issue, the nuke executives all got together and decided to capitalize on climate concern to sell their near0dead industry. Using vast amounts of taxpayer subsidies, they mounted an effective PR campaign and sold their technology to us using our own money to do so... a lot like the Cons are selling EAP.

Mark Dowling said...

These reactors were designed to run for about 30 years. They've run 35-40 and were to be extended. If we're to learn anything from this, it's that the politically easy option is to refurbish but the safer one is new construction.

As for China - sure they're building solar. But they're building nuclear too, *25* new units to join the 13 operational ones plus more in planning stage.

JimBobby said...

That March 10 WNA (nuke industry publication) article is out of date. Steve V is not the only one rethinking nuclear.

CHINA has put its $150 billion nuclear power program on hold, citing the importance of safety and adding to mounting doubts about the ability to hit 2050 global emission-reduction targets.

China's move to suspend development of new reactors came as governments around the world launched their own reactor checks and began reviewing their commitment to nuclear technology in the wake of the escalating Japanese nuclear crisis.

Bonnie said...

I think we need to take a deep breath on this issue because it was a perfect storm.

The fact that the plant is 40 years old is subject to the fact that in that political age neither seismic or tsunami contingencies were considered.

It was a huge mistake - that we can all agree.

Seriously, if anyone proposed such a venture now in the Vancouver area it would not have any support.

Like it or not we live in a very serious seismic area.

Steve V said...

Perfect storms happen, and these ones last 30000 years or longer. Appreciate the point though.

Jerry Prager said...

Those thoughts do not qualify as reaction but as a return to the pursuit of the proactive. A little leak at Pickering this week, a little earthquake between Ottawa and Montreal, it has never been safe.

JimBobby said...

The perfect storm thing is very apt. Engineers and regulators have consistently failed to plan for a perfect storm; i.e. a truly worst-case scenario.

Right now,we have the CNSC taking Bruce Power's word that there is "no risk" (yes, they really claim "no risk") to a plan to ship radioactive steam generators through the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River and across the Atlantic to Sweden.

After the Swedish contractor separates the usable steel from the concentrated radioactive part, the radioactive portion will be shipped back to Ontario by the same method. No risk? Real worst-case scenario planning would never come to such an irresponsible conclusion.

If our nuclear regulator dares to cross the industry, the politicians fire the regulator, Linda Keen style.

New build, refurbishment... it doesn't matte. The nuclear industry has been dealt a body blow. After Three Mile Island, no new nuke plants were built for 30 years. TMI rated a 4 on the 7 level nuke accident scale. Fukushima rates a 6, so far. Stick a fork in it.

Jerry Prager said...

Ask Mike Nagy the local Guelph Green federal candidate who use to work in nuclear, he's inside both worlds, and does his homework.

Möbius said...

In Ontario, the feed-in-rate for solar is many times that of conventional electricity sources (about 5x, but it seems to vary when elections approach), because it's not economical. Since we are about 50% nuclear, electricity prices would inevitably increase significantly.

Personal solar water heating is probably a better bet than solar-electric in terms of saving electricity from other sources.

Who's willing to accept 50% less power in the near future, and pay 5 times more for it?

I say, damn the torpedos, dam more rivers, and make more hydroelectric. Except for the environmental impact of that, no problem.

JimBobby said...

The dam idea is not bad. We don't actually need to build more dams, though. All over Ontario, we have unused dams that were formerly used to power sawmills, flour mills, spinning mills. small scale, distributed hydro-electric solves many problems: no need for long distance transmission corridors, no need to build new dams and flood green space, way cheaper than nuclear and much quicker to implement.

Möbius said...

Dams aren't bad, except for those who get displaced by them, like the Three Gorges project in China, which displaced over a million people. Are we willing to scrap environmental regs and personal freedoms to expropriate the necessary lands, just to reduce the relatively low risks involved in nuclear (at least in this province)? Larger earthquakes and tsunamis are inevitable in Japan. I'm not sure there are here, in non-coastal regions.