The use of Reason and reasonable argumentation, the reclaiming of the idea of Progress and the struggle against dogma. In this post-modern world, reinventing Enlightenment is of the utmost importance.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Nuclear power? - III

I know nothing about nuclear power. Nuclear waste? If it is waste just store it where I cannot see it; since I cannot have children and have no family nor friends I have nothing to worry about.

Chernobyl, Three Mille Island? Probably the names of some beautiful flowers. Radioactivity? That one I know: It’s my local nightclub where they play my favourite music: “chain reaction”.

“Meltdown”? Isn’t that something they have on the menu at McDonalds? If it isn’t it sure sounds nhumy… Kursk, USS Thresher, USS Scorpion? What is a Russian city mingling with a scorpion and a guy called Thresher?

Hiroshima? Nagasaki? The first one I know about: It’s also a nightclub I’m keen on; the second…Hum…maybe another flower?

So, as you see, I’m completely uninformed when it comes to nuclear power; what shall I do regarding this debate of building more nuclear power plants? As I always say, when in doubt check what the two clowns above think on the matter and decide the opposite way…


Blogger daviduskas said...

And…Before you come in here and say how stupid I am cause I have no scientific knowledge on nuclear energy and so I should shut my trap and listen to you scientists that know everything about it, let just let me tell you three things:

First: In fact I have no degree at all. What I have that I’m guessing you haven’t is 20 years of a thorough research in the human nature. For this research I’ve read literally thousands of books, and I’ve examined thousands of people. In this research I’ve come across with people from all paths of life, from richer to poorer, from the Christian to the Muslim, from the white to the black and so on.

Second: Don’t come in here and throw books in my face. Even if I eventually read them, (I’m such a book worm) I dislike the assumption that since I have not read them, then I’m a fool when it comes to nuclear energy. My suggestion for you would be: go back to your books and quote from them if you want to make an argument in favour of nuclear. You know, I’m an atheist and some of my friends are not; they would like to convert me; do you think they throw the bible at me? No. They quote from it.

Third: advantages and disadvantages of Nuclear Power Plants:
Advantages are:
Essentially no greenhouse gas emissions
No producing of air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, mercury, nitrogen oxides or particulates
The quantity of waste produced is small
Small number of accidents
Low fuel costs
Large fuel reserves
Ease of transport and stockpiling of fuel

Disadvantages are:
Nuclear waste produced dangerous for thousands of years
Consequences of any accident may be catastrophic
Risks of nuclear proliferation associated with some designs
High capital costs
Long construction period, imposing large finance costs and delaying return on investment
High maintenance costs
High cost of decommissioning plants
Current designs are all large-scale

Do I make myself clear? Now let me be the one to throw some books at you: 1984 – George Orwell; Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. Go and check them, they have nothing to do with science but all to do with Human Nature.

1:07 PM

Blogger A. Cabral said...

What do you do about those that don't believe in human nature?

Sticks and stones can brake my bones but books will never hurt me.

2:40 PM

Blogger James Aach said...

Hopefully my previous posts were not too annoying.

Your list of good points and bad points is thorough and shows you've got a reasonable grasp of the subject of nuclear energy in the broad sense.

One item missing (which Stewart Brand has tried to address as per your previous article) is that the alternatives for energy production have problems which may be worse.

Right now in the US it's somethng like 70% fossil (hello, global warming), 20% nuclear and 10% hydro, with a little lopped off each number and going to solar/wind, geothermal, etc. Conservation could perhaps remove a third of that, but there's still a huge amount of power to produce. (These percentages do vary quite a bit from country to country depending on their resources, etc.)

Unfortunately, scaling up the "greener" items has some real problems once you get very far - from the large numbers of windmills and/or solar panels necessary to replace even one large-size fossil or nuke plant, to the potential shortage of silicon for solar panels and the limitations on materials that may keep windmill blades from growing beyond a certain size.

So the math works out that even in the best of worlds, even with a lot of conservation, the choices for a sizeable chunk of electric power production are fossil, nuclear, and perhaps a little more hydro.

At least, that seems to be the view from the energy sector based on my reading and background.

But even starting to think about the problem is a real start, and you and all the other folks blogging away on this topic are to be commended for that.

9:04 PM

Blogger A. Cabral said...

Dear James,

You will agree that people do different maths on this subject. Some (like the George C Marshall Insititute, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute) are even doing maths that deny global warming. I suspect there is a bit of rhetoric in every line of mathematics.

The policy options cannot be wholly determined scientifically or bureaucratically, the uncertainty is great and politics plays into it too.

I did't get your scalling up argument, no one wants to have huge windmills, but one may have many more. And clearly "green" energy has only recently been explored and implemented. We don't know its full potential yet.

The crucial objective though, and the West is in denial on this, is conservation. Put the industries to task on their energy efficiency. Redraw the cities to allow bycicles in and have better public transport. Less SUVs on the roads...

Cynically, I believe the problem really is profitability for the energy industry. "Green" is not profitable, nuclear is if oil prices keep going up.


6:57 AM

Blogger James Aach said...

I think we're actually not that far apart here.

I absolutely agree that conservation is the first and best priority. Unfortunately, even if the West cuts its power load 50%, we still use a huge amount.

I agree that a lot of energy matters come down to public decision-making, politics, and the unforseseen twists and turns of the future. A lot of my book deals with this aspect. Nuclear Power in the US, to a large extent, has been governed by these factors.

I also agree that since we haven't been looking at some of the newer power surces (solar, etc.) as long as the old ones, that there may be some breakthroughs that lead to better production efficiency, etc. But I have to doubt the timeline for discovery and then massive implementation will be fast enough.

I concur that math and research gets put to all kind of uses, some of which are a bit unpleasant for my tast. My background is in engineering, however, where if the math doesn't pan out, the machine doesn't work - so you've got to get it right. The same is not true when you're modeling climate or looking well into the future on anything. You can jiggle the figures as you please with the only downside beig arguments. If your an engineer and your company has comitted to supplying 100 megawatts of power to the electric grid - you'd better do it.

You're correct that my scaling up argument for windmills supposses we'd just want fewer, bigger ones, and we could just go with more smaller ones (which would likely be more expensive overall). For photovoltaic, there may be problems with the ready availability of silicon for large scale production. Batteries are also part of the P-v equation, and these can require some odd materials as well, but I can't say for sure they wouldn't be available in greater quantitites. I don't have a good enough handle on wave power to say what the materials are. What I can say about all the renewables is that they aren't very "energy dense". It takes a lot of surface area to get the same power you get from one compacted fossil/nuclear power plant. So at large scales, land use may be an issue. Here in the US, another problem is that lots of the best (and otherwise useless) land for this is far away from anything, and the transmission infrastructure isn't in place (and its hard to put new power lines anywhere these days.)

One point I would like to emphasize is that the math comes into play in an engineering (practical) sense when you discuss what your power source is going to be. Say you know you will always need 100 MW of energy. You can build several conventional power plants that will make 150 MW total, so you're assured that even with maintenance and failures you'll get your 100 MW. (This is how today's electrical grids work.) You can go the green route, but the numbers of generating units start to get a lot bigger. As an example, you can't install 150 wind turbines rated at 1 MW each, because wind turbines, on average, produce only 25% of their "rating". So you've got to install at least 600 wind turbines. Plus, there will be times when you need the power and there's no wind at all. So you'll need a huge bank of batteries as backup. This is all quite doable, and if society decides this is the way it wants to go and is willing to pay the economic cost, it will be done. What concerns me is a general perception (fostered by politicians, I'm afraid) that such a change from standard power sources to renewable sources would not be such a huge and exensive undertaking. It would be.

But the more we talk about, the more likely we'll come to some kind of workable solution. I hope so, anyway.

Finally, I agree that in the energy biz as in everything else, "follow the money" is a real key. The electric energy bisness is a little different that auto fuel, in that it tends to be more regulated, with more committments on the part of the supplier to provide a certain amount of power at a certain cost. This is where the politics and public perception come in. An electric power company could propose replacing a nuclear power with green energy, but it would also come with a hefty price increase. The public at large is not ready to stand for that yet. (Maybe when they are sunning themselves on the shores of northern Canada, they will be).

I've enjoyed our conversation -- now its back to other blogs to try to bring attention to my book. See Episode 2 and it's comments, and Episodes 11 - 14 for further discussion on the topic of energy supplies.

Regards, James Aach

12:52 PM

Blogger daviduskas said...

Dear James

Excuse me if I was a bit harsh in one of my comments (Latino-personality), but I really appreciated having you by, now that I got you to elaborate further on the subject of alternatives to nuclear energy. Sadly I have to agree with you that consumers of today’s world are to selfish and self-centred as not to be ready to pay the price that would come with replacing nuclear power with green energy. The calamity here is that today’s politicians govern merely for the immediate effect and do not consider the long run implications of their actions.

I still think that going even more nuclear wouldn’t be the solution, because ultimately nuclear power can be the dirtiest power of them all. In the end, my stance here relates to my perception on Human Nature as a whole. When I see men like George Bush, or men like the president of Iran (and by the way if we build up more NPP why should he not?) in charge of affairs; when I see terrorists; when I see what’s happening with the soviet nuclear submarine fleet, I cannot in good conscience endorse the creation of more NPP.

In the former USSR NPP’s are in mess just a few decades after their construction. This has nothing to do with the NPP’s; it is mainly due to the fact that the political structure collapsed; the country’s politician are a wild bunch of corrupted men and they don’t care. What are worse, western politicians don’t care either. They know that a nuclear disaster in the former USSR is a strong possibility; they know the nuclear fleet is an accident waiting to happen, yet they do nothing.

That said, good look with promoting your book, hope to see u soon.

1:42 PM

Blogger A. Cabral said...

Dear James,

I must confess utter ignorance on such matters as energy supply networks or the comparative efficiency of energy sources. I recognise you make a persuasive and thoughtful argument and as a result you have succeeded in inticing me to pick up your book.

I don't recognise the scenario of politicians pushing for neweable energies, in fact I know only of the opposite. In Europe the buzz is increasingly on nuclear, and this occurs when no studies have been done exploring what are the alternatives. I would be much surprised if that were in the case in the US, didn't Bush reopen Alaska for oil exploration?

If the options were to explained, a choice between a more expensive but sustainable green energy and the cheaper nuclear alternative, I believe the public would choose the former. However, no such public debate is on the agenda and the decision will be made for us.

By training, my take on the subject is economic and I my fear is that the solution from which we are tending is primarily being driven by the demands of the markets. As so often happens with corporate myopia it may not be the best solution for our future quality of life.


3:44 PM

Blogger James Aach said...

Thanks for the comments on my comments to your comments, guys.

To answer one question, here in the U.S. the Democratic (opposition) party has been speaking about renewables for years, and they are just releasing a new plan calling for something like 20% renewable by 2020 (I think). They never talk about cost, though.

I agree with almost everything you said above, and you've said it well. If nuclear is viewed as a worldwide solution, we could have some real problems down the road, like the Russians are beginning to have now. (US plants exchange visits and information with them periodically, and we hear sad stories.)

Short term economics, political posturing, and corporate myopia do see to rule the western world a lot of the time. I'm afraid here in the US, most of our successful politicians of the last 30 years have promoted a "something for nothing" culture, so I'm not sure if voters here would approve a "more green for more money" power scenario. Some power companies have set up special "green accounts" where customers can pay a little more to support renewable energy. I don't think people have been flocking to do this.

Anyway, good to know there are people all over the place thinking about this topic. Perhaps we'll dig ourselves out of this hole yet.

Time to go blog searching again...

Jim Aach

9:53 PM

Blogger daviduskas said...

About sad stories, James:

“Investigators have found nuclear material capable of being used in a dirty bomb in an abandoned factory in Chechnya.
It was not clear why the radioactive source had been kept in the factory in Grozny, but officials said it posed a severe threat to anyone who came near it. Site contamination was found to be tens of thousands of times more than normal levels.

Valery Kuznetsov, a Chechen prosecutor, told NTV television: "This is above all now a threat to the population, because the leadership and officials of the firm did not take the necessary steps to isolate the isotope." - Reuters

8:17 AM

Blogger James Aach said...

Yes, there's radioactive junk all over the Soviet Union. Saw a special on TV one night about a unit they used to prepare seeds for planting (can't remember quite what it did). It contained some really nasty stuff, and there are apparently a lot of them just sitting around over there. This one got dumped in a woods and messed up some hunters really good. The same thing happens from time to time all over the world. Old x-ray units and so on. Brazil had a famous case a few years ago and there is a case from Morocco in my book. The U.S. has had some less tragic examples.

Radioactive waste is not limited to nuclear power facilities - in fact, they may be the best caretakers (or as good as it gets) because it is such an obvious hazard to them. But I agree that all the crap sitting around the old Soviet Union is more than a little problematic.
Take care. JA

5:00 PM


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