[FoRK] Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power

Stephen Williams sdw at lig.net
Sun Mar 27 15:47:57 PDT 2011

> Was there an assertion that nuclear is more front-loaded than competitive methods of power generation?
> While I can agree that all other forms of energy production have significant backend loads, I submit that the backend for nuclear is substantial as well. Consider just the waste problem. Even if solved at a discounted rate, the resultant solution(s) must be secure and functional for quite a few tens of thousands of years. Not only does the time span greatly increase whatever ongoing costs there are (and there always are), we currently have no evidence that humans can devise anything that functions even for five thousand years.

It is possible that it isn't front-loaded enough, or that the front-loading isn't enough.  There is a required estimate of dismantal 
/ storage costs built into licensing, funding, and the whole model.  However, the idea that nuclear waste disposal necessarily means 
active monitoring, armed guards, etc. for millenia seems a little off:  The nuclear material came from the ground to begin with. 
  There are mines you would not want to live near now because of natural radioactivity.  This does not automatically incur 
astronomical costs to deal with does it?  Denver even has a fairly high level of radiation from isotopes in all of the granite 
everywhere there.  (But I just read that while radiation is easy to detect, there is no obvious increase in cancer rates.  And there 
have been studies that a little low-level radiation can actually lower cancer rates by activating anti-cancer mechanisms 
more.)  Only when there are irrational blocks to doing something logical (pick a deep, remote site far from water tables) does the 
task seem impossible and the costs astronimical.  The Earth is a big place, we hardly use much of it really, and there is plenty of 
remote, protected space underground that is more or less easily used for permanent storage.  If you also concentrate the waste, the 
problem is pretty much non-existent.  Additionally, the thorium-based system apparently "eats" other radioactive waste, leaving much 
less than you started with.

> Regarding engineering against risk:
> The progression to an acceptable "failsafe" level, is of course, an incremental asymptotic pursuit. Due to cost considerations, you don't get to design beyond a given expectation until it happens. At which point it is essentially too late. There is zero possibility (here's the human factor) of *actually building* anything that is inherently dangerous that covers all the possible failure modes. By the time we get nuclear technology to the point where we have, say, a one in 1000 year/1000 units failure rate, we may well have long lost public interest in continuing.

For certain kinds of reactors, including nearly all of those from the past, there are potentially bad failure modes that take a lot 
of layers of safety to make safe enough.  However, many new reactor designs are immune or almost immune to melt-down.  Some, 
especially the thorium-based systems, don't even involve any quantity of volatile isotopes.  (Uranium is made and immediately 
consumed...)  We designed a particular kind of reaction in the 40's and 50's, engineered a plant in the 60's, and we've been mostly 
stuck since then in evolving to where we could be.  If you build a plant where any configuration of the elements is safe, how can 
anyone cling to the notion that "nuclear *" is inherently totally unsafe under any circumstances?  (Rationally, you can't.)

> Lastly, safe nuclear (oxymoron alert) is only possible in a peaceful society or environment. Fukushima was quite violent, and that directly overwhelmed the existing defences. Consider war and the likelihood, even the necessity, of taking out the opponent's reactors, never mind the mischief factor of going after their waste facilities.

For a big plant, you can harden in ways that would stop most attacks.  Already, more-modern pressure vessels and containment 
buildings have been designed to take hits with typical bombs or jetliners without failure.  For newer, smaller plants, you are 
likely to have only the impact of a dirty bomb (at ground level), and for thorium plants perhaps almost none of that.  Directly 
hitting people or a chemical plant or biowarfare are all likely going to be much worse than anything involving nuclear attacks.  The 
only real problem would be people not having that power source, which is common to all current generation systems.  And, you can 
bury newer kinds of plants that should solve most of this.

> However, I acknowledge that nuclear will be with us for some time yet, and we should get much better at it. But therein also lies the crux; namely the insatiable appetite we have for energy. Even though the developed world has become more efficient in the use of energy, per capita demand still rises, and developing nations want to be like us. I expect nuclear must be part of the mix in the near term. However, the heretofore historically cheap price of oil has heavily subsidized other forms of energy production, another factor for rising costs. This is good, if possibly a little late. There is no such thing as cheap energy, nor should there be.
> Continuing to feed this outsize appetite isn't rational, in any sense. If the methods of production don't kill everything, the consumption of the energy and the backend costs surely will.

At a certain point, that may be true.  However, the point at which it is true varies and is debateable.  We should be as efficient 
as possible, but should not blindly regress.  We can do so much with so little power now that it doesn't seem a terminal issue.

> JP


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