The Fukushima legacy

At one end of the hyperbole scale we have Helen “If you love this planet” Caldicott, who raises the specter of “cancer and genetic diseases” if things get any worse at the growing list of nuclear power reactors crippled or destroyed by last week’s earthquake in Japan. At the other we have Republican congressman Mitch McConnell, who argues that we shouldn’t abandon nuclear power, especially “right after a major environmental catastrophe.”

In between the pundits and genuine experts are pointing out that the mining, processing, and burning of fossil fuels kill hundreds or even thousands of times as many people every year as the nuclear power industry has in its entire history.

I’d rather we compared nuclear’s risk and benefits against those of clean renewables. What’s the worst-case scenario for a thermal solar power plant? Even a wind farm engineer’s most terrifying nightmare seems like a powder compared with nuclear technology. (And then there’s the waste-disposal headache that comes with current fissioin technology.) Mike the Mad Biologist has one of the sanest takes I’ve seem so far, although it suffers from an absence of a life-cycle cost-analysis, which undermines the case for nuclear power even as a second-best option.

But I strongly suspect that all of this is moot. Especially the sane stuff. For once, McConnell might be on to something. Right before the quote cited above he reportedly said:

This discussion reminds me, somewhat, of the conversations that were going on after the BP oil spill last year…

Exactly. Those conversations didn’t amount to much. We hadn’t even begun to calculate the ecological and economic costs of the spill before the U.S. federal government resumed the granting of permits for off-shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. How many policy-makers bothered to question whether coal mining is worth the thousands of lives it costs each year while the country glued its collective eyes to the coverage of the Upper Big Branch tragedy?

Many have argued recently that rational policy debate and decision-making are no longer possible in an era when scientific evidence is a distraction easily eclipsed by the short-term, bottom-line demands of industry. I suspect that even irrational fears have been consigned to the growing pile of irrelevant factors. There’s just too much inertia in our industrial economy, and too much concentration of power in the hands of those for whom maintaining the status quo is the only respectable goal, for something as remote and complicated as a couple of hydrogen explosions in Japan to make a difference.

Back the 80s, it seems that popular opinion, whatever it’s foundation, could derail an entire industry. There have no new nuclear power plants ordered in the U.S. since Three Mile Island. Today, however, I doubt even the chattering classes have that kind of sway, let alone the public at large. Not in this country.

5 Replies to “The Fukushima legacy”

  1. Mike, I’ve got the lifecycle figures for carbon dioxide emmisions based on two sources (one an Oxford Study, the other from the Energy Policy journal) and the basic conclusions on my blog here:

    I also included figures for sulfur and nitrogen oxides from the EPA for most electrical generation systems.

    There’s another post on my blog about energy subsidies and economics.

    In short, everything I’ve read says you are totally right. Even if we started building nuclear plants now, it can take (literally) a decade or more from initial proposal to a running plant. Where does the electricity come from in the meantime? Coal and other fossil fuels.

    Wind and solar farms are much quicker and easier to build.

  2. Public Opinion might not be the deciding factor. The BBC news this evening says that nuclear plant builds in a number of countries are suddenly under review again. The authorities in those countries are getting nervous, and I suspect that so will the institutions expected to pay for them.

    The plants may well go ahead (official policy changes very slowly), but it would be expected that extra safety features might be insisted on (backups to the backups to the backups). That increases costs, and in an industry known for its over-runs, isn’t going to make nuclear any more attractive to the money markets.

    Fukushima isn’t a death blow to nuclear (any more than Three Mile Island was), its just another reason not to build.

  3. I think it’s fair to ask about worst-case scenarios, but I also think it’s reasonable to talk about real worst-case and not some panicky imagined version. Like all “western” nuclear plants Fukushima’s reactors have both backups (which largely failed in this extreme case) and fail-safe aspects to their design. It looks like we are about to find out how good these old plants are at failing safely.

    At Fukushima right now, the real adverse health effects of the two-to-three reactor failures are confined to the workers on-site hurt by the hydrogen explosions, as far as is discernible through the confusing fog of media reports so far. If we want to get real facts and numbers about the effects of the two hydrogen explosions and any entrained radioactivity, we’re going to have to be patient and wait a week or two.

    Anyone claiming they know exactly what’s going on right now is jumping the gun.

    On another point, it might be that the nuclear industry impact you claim for Three-Mile Island is illusory. The lack of new nuclear plant orders dates more-or-less exactly from the abolition of the AEC (and start of the NRC).

    I should also say that the kind of regulatory inconstancy you mention is exactly what keeps the cost of capital for nuclear plants high. It’s governmental & regulatory risk of delays that makes nuclear projects “risky” in a financial sense. It simply doesn’t happen for other technologies. People get killed in natural gas plants and next day it’s business as usual.


    OgreMkV, both your sources are strongly anti-nuclear and their studies are deliberately slanted to reach their conclusions. Storm van Leeuwen, given pride of place in the deceptively named “Oxford Research Group” (nothing to do with Oxford University) pamphlet, is particularly notorious for his bias. Granting an extraordinarily long regulation process, you’ll find that nuclear power is still quicker to build reckoned per average MW generation delivered.

  4. Joffan – my point about Three Mile Island (as opposed to James’s) is that the time for nuclear construction had pretty much passed anyway. The accident simply slammed the door shut. Much the same can by said for the Japanese situation – its not that the whole of the Japanese people or anyone else will cry out for nuclear to be abandoned and their governments will comply. Its that government has to be seen to be doing something, and that they will ask for more safety systems and more time to evaluate new builds. All of which adds more costs and more risk to projects which are not especially attractive now.

    And I would argue that its not governments fault that nukes take so long to build (the French reactor is behind schedule and over budget, and I can’t imagine the French being especially picky, particularly since they own both EDF and Ariva), since if due diligence had been done in Japan, the effects of a 9 earthquake and the vunerability of the backup power systems to a tsunami would have been pinpointed.

    If I was an investor with $10 billion to spend in the energy market over the long term, seeing that clip of the explosion at the plant is going to make me think:
    1)’OMG’ (I did when I saw it)
    2) Are nukes the best way for me to spend my money?

    Considering this is a technology which has never come in on time or on budget (or without government subsidy), whose poster kids are two reactors built by the French which are currently well over budget and schedule, which still has a problem with waste disposal and decommissioning, and tends to have people running for their lives at the hint of any trouble, solar/wind is looking very attractive right now.

    If Warren Buffett thinks he can’t make any money out of it, who am I to argue? Of course, the industry could prove us all wrong….

  5. My sources say NOTHING about cost per megawatt or speed of building per megawatt. Two independent sources said the exact same thing for ONLY the Carbon Dioxide produced over the lifecylce of the facility.

    The other pollution was based entirely on EPA values and nuclear came off pretty well. I’m not sure what you’re complaining about. But let’s look at some case studies.

    Three Mile Island… construction beings in 1968. The first reactor is commissioned in 1974. Six year construction time. Total cost: The initial construction cost was 400 million US$, equal to $1,781,448,883 today

    Commanche Peak, Texas… construction begins 1974. First commission date: 1990 (16 years) Total cost: unknown, but the upgrade (two more reactors) $8.5 billion to $20.4 billion for a 3,400 MW plant.

    Now, how much wind power can you build for 8.5 billion? 2001 cost per megawatt 1.2-2.6 million per megawatt of nameplate capacity. Even a conservative estimate would yield almost 4 Megawatts of nameplate capacity.

    In 2009 almost 10,000 Megawatts of wind power were brought online. Up from the 8900 MW of 2008. So that’s kind of an estimate on how long it takes to build a wind farm… less than a year. Because it’s a distributed source, it takes much less time to build turbines and install them than a single nuclear reactor.

    Now, what are you using for power in the next 6-16 years while your nuke plant is being built… coal, oil, natural gas… so, for 6-16 years, your nuclear plant is not doing anything, while the generator capacity I installed in less than a year is already pumping out electricity.

    I’m not anti-nuclear. I’m fine with it. I just don’t see it as effective anymore. Choice between nuclear and any fossil fuel. I go nuclear. Choice between nuclear and wind/solar. I go wind/solar.

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