20 March 2011

Nuclear power -- a dangerous dinosaur

As Japanese engineers struggle to stabilize the situation at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, a debate over the future of nuclear power has erupted in the United States.

The far more destructive meltdown at Chernobyl was not enough to convince advocates that nuclear power is inherently unsafe. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, with all the corruption, lack of accountability, and other sources of incompetence that that implies. Post-industrial democratic societies could handle the technology safely.

But Japan is a post-industrial democracy, and one of the world's most technologically-advanced countries. It's also an earthquake- conscious society; if anyone could have been properly prepared for a disaster like this, it's the Japanese. Yet the damage to the reactors at Fukushima was severe and the situation remains dangerous.

Most of the territory of the US is considered to be at low risk for earthquakes, but considering the harm a major quake near a nuclear reactor could do, there are too many uncertainties. One of the most violent quake series in the recorded history of North America happened in an area not normally considered quake- prone at all.

An overlooked question is vulnerability to terrorism. Imagine what could have happened if the planners of 9/11 had thought to crash a hijacked plane into a nuclear power plant. Evil humans are inherently harder to guard against than natural disasters. Natural disasters don't consciously study your safety precautions and plan ways to circumvent them; terrorists do.

Almost everyone recognizes that the world needs to move away from fossil fuels, but surely solar power is our best option. It's expensive, true, but so are nuclear reactors, when the costs of insurance and of elaborate safety precautions are factored in. The United States contains vast areas of useless desert where solar power stations could be built without disrupting anything important. Solar power is better suited to dispersed, numerous small power stations, more resilient than the small number of large power stations which nuclear energy requires. A solar power plant that somehow got wrecked wouldn't threaten the kind of widespread harm that radiation from a wrecked nuclear reactor would.

Nuclear power is a dinosaur-like hold-over from an earlier era of technology -- the era of centralization, gigantism, and rigidity, the era of putting all the eggs in one basket. For the era of dispersed, networked, flexible systems, solar power is better suited.

Global energy demand is going to increase enormously in the coming decades, as Asia and South America modernize and as computer power and usage grow exponentially (computers are energy-intensive). Nuclear power is not a safe way to meed this demand. The Sun is drenching the planet with free energy all the time, whether we use it or not. Surely the solution is obvious.

16 Comments:

Blogger Ahab said...

The transition away from nuclear power will only occur if citizens demand it and put pressure on Big Energy to implement change. Fukushima might be the catalyst that galvanizes citizens to act.

20 March, 2011 09:30  
Blogger John Myste said...

The world does not need nuclear power. It wants it. It should be universally banished. We would survive, just as we did before we had it. If we keep using it, we may not survive. Now that we just learned it is dangerous, perhaps we will use our newly gained knowledge wisely.

20 March, 2011 09:59  
Blogger Jerry Critter said...

I am afraid that "The Citizens" would rather have cheap energy than safe energy.

20 March, 2011 10:08  
Blogger godlizard (aka dotlizard) said...

Just recently, I've noticed a marked increase in the number of oil-and-gas propaganda advertisements ('oil gives us jobs! natural gas is natural!'). The energy industry is obviously on the offensive in the wake of this tragedy, trying to cuddle up to the public as we anxiously hoard our iodine pills, figuring that with overloaded attention spans we are ripe to forget the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the rapidly dwindling nature of the planet's petroleum reserves in general.

This observation is based on working from home and having the TV on all day, mostly on 24-hour news stations. I don't know if the green energy folks are broke or are missing out on a huge PR opportunity.

They should come up with reality shows for solar contractors. Hell, we watch people make cakes and issue parking tickets and pick through hoarded garbage, why not have some folks installing cool new clean energy technology and showing the benefits?

Someone needs to get on that, stat.

20 March, 2011 14:22  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ahab: I hope so. Wisconsin seems to have galvanized a new wave of mass involvement in politics. Perhaps people will extend it to other issues.

JM: I'd certainly like to see it phased out. It will be interesting to see if a movement develops in Japan to do that.

JC: Perhaps they will value safety more once they realize that they themselves might end up being poisoned by fallout.

GL: I think that a look at the overlap between ownership of fossil-fuel companies and ownership of media companies might prove instructive there. Oil-industry money largely drives global-warming denialism - clearly they're not above the use of propaganda.

I'm no expert on power generation, but the superiority of solar power for the future seems so obvious that it is indeed largely a matter of getting the word out. The old-line media don't seem interested, but in the internet age, there are other options.

20 March, 2011 15:47  
Blogger Cyc said...

It seems a common missconception that reactor technology has not improved over the years. If we could just switch to solar right now, I would agree, do it. But the state of solar is still quite low, the energy yields are a lot lower than most realize (this is not to say it won't improve with new materials and I am very much in favor of such techniques).

Now the event in Fukushima is bad, but hype has made it sound worse than it is (not to mention in the entire history of nuclear power, this is only the third incident with one having no impact other then scaring a lot of people). The amount of radiation leaked is less than someone generally gets in a CT scan. This includes in food, in fact the amounts you would have to consume to show any affect is absurd.

"Can you imagine eating 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of spinach every day for one year?" State Secretary of Health Minister Yoko Komiyama asked.

Finally, you mentioned the threat of terrorism. This is a serious threat, but one that was taken into consideration from the beginning, watch this.

Now am I trying to say that the situation is perfec? No, when other renewable power sources can do the job, we should go with them. But until they become more efficient, the choice will be between nuclear and fossil fuels, based on the records, nuclear is far safer.

21 March, 2011 02:36  
Blogger dmarks said...

Green energy is taking a big hit in my area, quite often from the left. Perhaps taking a cue from the Kennedy family. There's a huge opposition to windmills around here.

21 March, 2011 06:26  
Blogger Cyc said...

A couple more links that condense things a bit and remove the editorial fluff. First a piece at Starts With A Bang, writen by a theoretical astrophysicist (includes the size of a solar plant that could power the States currently, which would be difficult, yet doable).

Second, a chart over at XKCD that shows the levles of radiation compared to quite a few other things we experiance to put things into persepective.

21 March, 2011 20:23  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Cyc: Are you seriously arguing that the destruction of a nuclear plant by terrorists wouldn't produce a huge disaster? That's an essential part of the safety argument. One can make a system pretty close to foolproof, but fiendproof is a lot harder.

As I mentioned in the post, one of the advantages of solar is that we can have a huge number of small widely-dispersed power plants instead of one (or a few) small ones for the whole country. If about 1,200 square miles of solar panels (35 x 35 miles) would be enough, clearly that's doable -- in the form of thousands and thousands of small arrays on rooftops, deserts, etc., not just a few big ones.

DMarks: ??? The post never mentions wind power. There are some substantial problems with it, such as aesthetic concerns, danger to birds, unreliability of wind, etc. -- which is why solar is a better option.

22 March, 2011 04:07  
Blogger Cyc said...

Not at all infidel, what I'm stating is that it would be incredibly difficult for terrorists to actually destroy a reactor. If they were to accomplish it, the devastation would be immense, but when the containment walls were designed, they took such things into considering, in the video linked, a fully fueled F-4 literally vaporizes without structural damage to the mock containment wall. They were designed with such things in mind from the start.

I know such tactics would only be one way to cause damage, but would be the most likely with the security around the reactors themselves.

I shall concede your point about divvying up the solar capacity. Mine was mostly in a remark about what is likely to occur at the moment (I would be all for a conversion to solar and other forms of renewable such as off-shore tidal generators). But with how things are now, most areas face a choice between nuclear and fossil fuels. This isn't ideal and I was not speaking from the idealist standpoint (which is a bit odd for me), just what is now.

22 March, 2011 05:25  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The link didn't work, but if a nuclear reactor can withstand a plane crash, why were the ones in Japan so badly damaged by an earthquake?

most areas face a choice between nuclear and fossil fuels.

Why? Solar power technology is already developed and already works; solar generators can be built faster than nuclear reactors. I don't see why it couldn't be built anywhere where power needs are increasing.

22 March, 2011 05:36  
Blogger Cyc said...

The reason why the Fukushima Daiichi plant was so damaged was because it was right over the epicenter of the strongest earthquake the country has ever recorded. Earthquakes are just slightly more powerful than...well...just about anything, so trying to compare a plane impact with a 9.0 is like comparing a bb gun with a .50 cal.

Here is another attempt at the link.

As for why most places have a choice between the two, the answer is sadly corporations. Currently solar power systems are operated by smaller companies that get out-bid by other power producing companies. The only way for this to change is for people to start demanding a change, but without such companies being able to encroach upon the established larger companies, even this will be hard. It will happen eventually, it has to, but it will be hindered by such issues.

The greatest chance for solar to become more widespread is tougher, cheaper and more efficient materials. Luckily new research into the use of carbon nanotubes has shown quite a bit of potential in this.

22 March, 2011 05:56  
Blogger Jerry Critter said...

My understanding is that the problem with the reactors in Japan was primarily caused by the loss of power to the cooling pumps which was caused by the tsunami, not directly by the earthquake.

22 March, 2011 08:00  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Cyc: The only way for this to change is for people to start demanding a change,

Which is part of my point. Large numbers of ordinary people demanding change have proven pretty effective in various parts of the world lately. I hope to see it here too.

Even a similar earthquake right under a solar power plant wouldn't create the kind of risks that the Japanese are now struggling to deal with.

JC: If so, then again, a similar loss of power or tsunami damage to a solar power plant would not raise the kinds of safety issues seen at Fukushima.

22 March, 2011 08:37  
Blogger Jerry Critter said...

Absolutely. There is no similarity between the safety issues at a nuclear facility and a solar facility.

22 March, 2011 08:49  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The reason why the Fukushima Daiichi plant was so damaged was because it was right over the epicenter

It was not. The epicenter was more than 100 miles away to the north-east.

31 March, 2011 05:18  

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