Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Future of Energy is Bright, Part III: Radiophobia

Over the past few months I have been immersing myself in nuclear technology in order to understand its implications for the future of energy. It is an important topic because the future of energy is the future of civilization: if a replacement for fossil fuel energy cannot be found, then there will be no more civilization. Going back to burning firewood will just mean that there will be no more trees either. If you think that wind generators and solar panels are the answer, these can’t be built or maintained without fossil fuels.

This is a rather difficult topic to discuss because of all the confusion sown by various “deniers”: peak oil deniers, climate change deniers, debt bomb deniers… There are also vain hopes being sown by technophiles who think that the advent of nuclear fusion is just around the corner or who dream about giant mirrors in space, the hydrogen economy or some other form of nonexistent technology. To make this topic easier to discuss, I will make certain assumptions. I will assume that nonexistent technology… doesn’t exist, so there is nothing to discuss. Please take your fusion reactors, thorium reactors, space mirrors and magic perpetual motion engines elsewhere. I am only interested in existing, proven technologies that can be scaled up.

I will also assume that fossil fuels are exceedingly abundant but too expensive and too energy-demanding to keep getting out of the ground at anything like the current rate. The vast majority of fossil fuel-producing nations are past their peak production. US shale oil and gas production is a transient money-waster, to the tune of $300 billion so far. There are a couple of dates to remember: conventional oil production peaked in 2005-6; diesel production seems to have peaked in 2017.

Lastly, I will assume that climate change is real and accelerating, is largely caused by the human burning of fossil fuels (and cow farts) and will cause tremendous death and suffering, and that this makes the continued and increasing use of fossil fuels a really dumb idea. These are the assumptions I make at the outset and there will be no further discussion of them here; if you don’t wish to accept them, then this article may not be for you.

Lots of people seem convinced that some combination of renewable energy sources—solar, wind, hydro and biomass—will be able to replace fossil fuels. They are wrong. Hydro is already in full use and limited. Wind and solar are intermittent and therefore need to be fully backed up by a variable on-demand energy source such as natural gas. Biomass is also in full use and needed to continue growing food, fodder and building materials. The recent surge in installed wind and solar generation capacity has been made possible by generous government subsidies and by the fact that Chinese manufacturers had been subsidizing solar panel production (they aren’t any more). Even with these subsidies, in the countries with the largest installed base of wind and solar the electricity rates have shot up considerably as a result, as has their use of natural gas.

This leaves nuclear power. It certainly is powerful: a kilogram of nuclear fuel will generate something like 14,000,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity. At $0.12 per (which is the US average) the value is around $1,600,000 per kilogram of fuel which only costs $1,400 a kilo, leaving $1,598,600 for building and running the nuclear installation and the power grid. Environmental damage from nuclear power technology, even with a few meltdowns included, is considerably less than from fossil fuels. The two death tolls are simply incomparable: tens to hundreds of millions dead from fossil fuels and a few thousand from nuclear contamination and radiation exposure, most of which came from nuclear weapons testing.

To be sure, there are some serious problems with nuclear power. One is that its share of overall energy production is quite small—4%, behind hydro with 7% but far ahead of all renewables combined at 2%. Another is that a key resource—uranium—is in rather short supply and the fissionable isotope of uranium—U-235—is in even shorter supply. The US is only 11% self-sufficient in nuclear fuel and has been getting half of it from Russia, while along the east coast of the US nuclear power plants produce 40% of electricity and the electric grid cannot function without them. Yet another problem is that the technical challenges of nuclear waste handling and reprocessing have proven too much for many countries, and they simply allow spent fuel—the most dangerous byproduct of nuclear energy—to accumulate at power plants.

Finally, there is the issue of lost competence: all of the nuclear nations except three—Russia, China and South Korea—appear to have lost the ability to build new nuclear power plants. Japan’s nuclear program has been in disarray since Fukushima. The US has a hundred reactors that are aging out but just a couple of ongoing new projects with uncertain completion dates. Germany has decided to shut down its nuclear industry entirely while France’s aging reactors are not being replaced, with just three projects (one in Finland) taking a very long time and resulting in gigantic cost overruns. The UK has had a disastrous experience with privatizing its nuclear industry and has basically ended up handing it over to the French, but the future of this relationship is uncertain because of Brexit. In short, all over the West (plus Japan) the nuclear industry is in disarray or moribund. Around two-thirds of all new nuclear power projects are being executed by Russia’s Rosatom, which also processes around half of all nuclear fuel in the world and has a complete lock on certain key pieces of nuclear technology. These facts cause severe mental difficulties for the political establishment in the US and they go through painful contortions to avoid mentioning Russia in this context.

But the biggest issue with nuclear power is radiophobia. People tend to conflate nuclear power with nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation. They can’t tell the difference between radiation and nuclear contamination. All of the above give them the heebie-jeebies and cause them to stand around protesting holding up “No nukes!” signs. Sometimes that’s warranted; certain people lack the necessary aptitude and expertise to make safe use of nuclear technology and should resist the urge to do so. It’s just not a good idea for them; nor is handing a hand-grenade to a monkey. But there is evidence that nuclear technology can be handled safely. There is also plenty of evidence of the high deterrent value of nuclear weapons while the dangers of nuclear proliferation have not been manifested. With one very important exception (the US) nuclear weapons have only been used as defensive weapons of a peculiar sort: their proper use is for them not to be used at all. Yes, the harm potential of nuclear technology is very high, but its probability is very low, and the product of the two is orders of magnitude lower than the evident harm from burning fossil fuels.

In order to be able to intelligently discuss nuclear technology one has to have some background in physics and chemistry and at least a rudimentary understanding of national and international security, defense technology and power grids. None of this is required if the goal is to cause people to fear nuclear technology—because it is truly awesome. It is much more awesome than electricity, which most people don’t understand either. Primitive peoples have tended to think that lightning consists of lightning bolts thrown by a god in anger; supposedly non-primitive people are loath to think that this is the case, but they mostly don’t know what to think instead. (If you do, please draw me a diagram that explains how lightning is created.)

Getting zapped by lightning is scary enough, but when people hear that nuclear bombs can destroy all life on Earth (not really, but they can definitely ruin your whole day) that’s pretty much all they need to know and are now scared of all things nuclear. At least the lightning bolts are visible, while radiation mostly isn’t (you’ll start seeing sparks or snow with your eyes closed if gamma radiation is strong enough, in which case you should get the hell out of there pronto).

Most people know that radiation can give them cancer, and invisible things that can kill you are definitely the stuff of nightmares, although what gives most people cancer is not radiation but perfectly legal products of the fossil fuel industry and the chemical industry. Just think of all the chemicals you can buy at a hardware store that carry warning labels about their carcinogenic effects. Unlike carcinogenic chemicals and air pollution, radiation can also be good for you. It can cure cancer (or at least send it into remission). If you are perfectly healthy, you still need radiation—solar radiation—in order for your skin to generate vitamin D, without which your immune system will weaken, you will become lethargic and depressed, your bones will become fragile and your hair will fall out. But if you lay in the sun too long you’ll burn your skin and increase your chances of developing skin cancer.

Also, you cannot escape being exposed to radiation because it is absolutely everywhere. Pour yourself a nice hot cup of tea, and it will emit infrared photons, which are a form of electromagnetic radiation—a very nice form of radiation, nice and warm. But if a welder takes off his mask and looks at a fresh weld while it’s still glowing orange, slightly higher-energy infrared photons will give him a nasty headache. Similarly, a little bit of radiation in the 12mm wavelength—the kind used in microwave ovens—won’t do anything, but a lot of it will cook you until you are crispy. The nastiest kinds of electromagnetic radiation—shortest-wavelength and most energetic—is X-rays and gamma rays because they can cause damage to the molecules in your body. If there is too much damage then it becomes irreparable and you become horribly sick and die.

And so you see it’s all a matter of dosage. People who spend many hours a day with a cell phone clapped to their faces may have a higher likelihood of developing brain cancer (evidence is still inconclusive). But people who pick their noses all day every day probably have a higher likelihood of developing nose cancer—you haven’t thought of that, have you? It’s very helpful to know how much radiation exposure you are getting, and of what sort, because just generally fearing radiation makes you a radiophobic nutcase. Being afraid of nuclear power plants because they are radioactive is just plain stupid. If there is one place where everyone is acutely aware of radiation and its risks, it’s a nuclear power plant. In fact, you usually get a lower dose of radiation standing inside a nuclear reactor containment building with the reactor running at full power than you would spending the same amount of time standing outside under the open sky being bombarded by solar radiation and other space rays.

Nuclear science is as close as humans have come to actual real-world alchemy. Medieval alchemists searched for philosopher’s stone that could transmogrify lead into gold. Well, nuclear scientists have figured out how to transmute elements, although it turns out to be much easier to turn gold into lead than vice versa, and in either case it’s a huge waste of energy. What’s not a waste of energy is transmuting uranium into plutonium. You can take uranium containing 0.7% of the useful U-235 isotope, enrich it to 3-5% U-235, put it in a reactor, generate lots of steam and electricity, and what you get at the end is something that contains 0.7% of equally useful plutonium (plus a lot of other, nasty radioactive junk that takes a long time to cool down and become safe). And if it’s a fast neutron “breeder” reactor (which only Rosatom has managed to figure out) then the amount of plutonum you get out is a multiple of the amount of U-235 that went in.

Some fear of nuclear technology is certainly called for—not of the technology itself but of human error in making use of it. In this regard, the biggest, most dangerous human errors have been made not by nuclear engineers or technicians but by citizens who consent to being ruled by narcissistic homicidal sociopaths for whom nuclear technology offers excellent opportunities to achieve their nefarious aims and to generally strengthen their stranglehold on society by threatening nuclear attacks and by staging nuclear accidents. Since nuclear attacks are strictly suicidal moves, they never move beyond mere threats; not so with nuclear accidents.

If you look carefully, at the three largest and most famous nuclear accidents—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima—they look like accidents in the same sense that a person who stabs himself through the heart from the back several times over several days can be deemed a suicide. Rather, they look like meticulously planned special operations involving officials at the highest levels and designed to achieve very specific (formerly) secret aims. They share the common signature of being contrived so that the allegation of them being carried out on purpose by those whose job was to prevent them is sufficiently outrageous to make it unthinkable for the vast majority, making it possible to paint the minority who do manage to see through the deception as “conspiracy theorists” (a thought-stopper derogatory term invented for just this purpose). I will discuss these three “accidents” with regard to means, motive, opportunity and modus operandi in this Thursday’s post.


Elros said...

As I can affirm, radiophobia can be cured with knowledge. However, it takes time and effort, and a good teacher also.

Sadly most of us lack some of those things.

By the way, I guess you'll mention it, but nuclear waste can also be burned, at least great deal of it, in a fast neuron reactor.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Elros -

Yes, the Russians plan to burn actinides separated during fuel reprocessing in their BN-800, of which for now only one is in operation, but at full power and doing well. As for everybody else (US, France, Japan) their fast reactor experiments have all ended in failure.

Houston Williams said...

I understand that the Fukushima "accident" resulted from the failure of the many "experts" who studied the design of this plant
to imagine that the sea wall which was supposed to protect the site from tsunamis was not high enough. They consequently allowed the standby electric generators to be placed at ground level rather than placed up somewhat higher. In the event the sea water did come over the sea wall and knocked out the generators. Having no electric power, the reactors could not be cooled and melted down. So this "accident" resulted from a collective stupidity which I personally find hard to accept. The cost of locating the generators up higher was truly minute in relation to the total cost of the installation, to say nothing of the staggering and incomprehensible cost resulting from the meltdown. I think Dimitri may comment on this in his next column. How do we phase out such gross misjudgment? Ditto the serious chromatic aberration of the Hubble telescope's mirror. The company which contracted to make the mirror refused to let outside sources test it. This company used three different methods to test the mirror. Two of them said it was no good; the third one said it was perfect. So the company went with the one that said it was OK and it was launched into space. Astronauts had to go up and insert corrective lenses into the optical path to correct the problem. I think the Bible had it right: "Thinking themselves wise they became fools". It's crystal clear that nuclear power is the only way "forward", if indeed that's the direction we will be going in..... We are very grateful to you, Dimitri, for shedding some light into these dark regions! Houston Williams

Dmitry Orlov said...

Houston -

That the tsunami inundated the diesel generator building is not attested as a fact. What is attested is that the gate to the building was made out of plywood rather than steel plate (perhaps in the hopes that a tsunami would sweep it away). In any case, the generators did stop (for whatever reason) and were not restarted (even though that's a 30-minute operation for anyone who knows how to run one) specifically because what was called for in the plan was a series of meltdowns.

pyrrhus said...

Nuclear power is unquestionably the only viable source for large quantities of energy in a post-hydrocarbon future...But the leaders of the West have chosen political opportunism over technology, and it is well established that its citizens don't care..Not only are we losing nuclear technology, but NASA has said that we no longer have the technology to go to the moon, and the plans for the Saturn V were destroyed under Jimmy Carter...Not coincidentally, IQs are declining even as Western politicians are importing more very low IQ immigrants...In short, Idiocracy seems to be our future, and the collapse of the nuclear industry is just one symptom.

John Casey said...

I'm so glad to see someone stating what seems obvious about nuclear accidents, namely that they weren't accidents. In terms of Fukushima, I wonder how was the earthquake manufactured, and whether it was rather stronger than expected. I suppose I could also ask who ordered these ops and who carried the ops out, but I suppose any look at who benefited from the ops would reveal, in general terms, which transnational psychopaths ordered them.

I suppose we then have to look at what processes (or psychopaths) appear to be at work in the lack of an electric battery technology, despite considerable R&D efforts at bench-scale, that would make electric cars less viable for the average person. Maybe I'm being dense, as usual, but it seems to me considerable overlap exists between entities that benefit from nuclear "accidents" and entities that benefit from hobbled automotive battery technology.

Helix said...

Pyrrhus - I'm not sure that "it's well-established that its citizens don't care" is quite right. I think it's more the case that the futility of thinking their interests will influence public policy has been demonstrated so conclusively that all but the most gullible have given up. There have even been studies that demonstrate that the interests of the general public have only random correlation with government policies, whereas the interests of the rich, the powerful, and large corporations have a correlation approaching 100%.

Sadly, our education system has degenerated to the point that there seem to be a larger and larger percentage of Americans falling into the "gullible" category. And So It Goes...

jerry said...

It would certainly be great to have safe nuclear technology, accident-free and with reprocessing of all nuclear wastes, and operated by sane, competent individuals. But Dmitry, you said you weren't going to talk about technology that doesn't exist in the real world!

Cost-effective energy storage technology for use with solar & wind generators is much closer. John Casey's comment is spot-on: there have been considerable R&D efforts at bench scale with flow batteries, and there are several technologies that look very promising.

I'm not even sure there's been any conspiracy to suppress them. It's just that there hasn't been much market demand so far. The grid has been able to absorb most of the energy that's been generated from (relatively) small-scale solar and wind projects. As fossil fuel power plants are phased out due to poor economics, flow batteries will step in to fill the demand for power storage. That is, if we survive long enough without being taken out by nuclear war, or ecosystem collapse.

Peter VE said...

The design of the reactor at Fukushima had an intrinsic stupidity. The carbon rods which are used to control the reaction were inserted from below and required a source of power to stop the reaction. Had the design allowed the rods to lower into place when the power failed, the reaction would have stopped. It is difficult to believe that such a stupid design could not have been done deliberately, and the reactor is one of many with the same design.

Adrian Pols said...

I may recall incorrectly, but I was thinking the auxiliary generators at Fukashima stopped running because of lack of fuel, that due to the diesel tanks being hit by the Tsunami.

dollard_bille said...

The energy situation and solutions will vary a lot by region. In Quebec, 99% of electricity generation is clean renewable, mostly Hydro. Over 60% of homes are already heated by electricity (reducing the risk of freezing in a future era of fossil fuel scarcity and high cost), and there is enough surplus to export a large amount to neighbors like Vermont. Hydro output can be adjusted quickly compared with a thermal or nuclear plant, and so works well with intermittent sources like solar and wind. No new storage technology is required because the existing water reservoir does this function. (It holds the water saved and not used during periods of high solar and/or wind output.) The existing Hydro turbines have enough output capacity to supply all the power demand, as they already did before wind and solar were added. We used to have 1 nuclear generating plant, Gentilly 2, but that was shut down a few years back as being too expensive to refurbish for more years of use when there was no need for it. It was built around 1970 before all the hydro development was built.Unfortunately, it is also more expensive than Quebec can afford to properly decommission it, so it sits there at moderate ongoing expense for security and building maintenance, fuel storage, etc.
But for other regions, I agree, a good, well executed and maintained, nuclear technology could be the best solution.

Nettle said...

But isn’t the problem precisely rulers who can never be trusted for:
principled democracy

Tell me, in what country can we find such rulers? Or, do they exist in some ivy-covered Hall of Knowledge and Wisdom? A mosque, church, coven, perhaps? Where are these people on whom we might place our faith for Nuclear Narnia??

A Kingdom of Wisdom, has not to my knowledge, ever happened in 250,000 years of human history ~ except in our ever-yearning imaginations. How do we think it will suddenly happen now, during an historical epoch that is historically stupid?

Yep. It woud be very nice indeed to have the explosive power of nuclear energy keeping our washng machines chugging along. It is fantasy to think human beings can be counted on to keep nuclear generated energy safe.

So, let us all wish that we might someday have people with rudimentary integrity in positions of power who will make intelligent decisions and desig “smart” reactors and storage vaults. Wish, wish, wish away!!

In the meantime, as Mr Orlov insists, let’s be real.
We are not smart enough as a species to handle nuclear energy.

Let’s get back to reality. It’s well past time to limit our wants to what we actually need for health and community, and realign ourselves with the immutable rules of the natural world.

pyrrhus said...

But the bottom line of lacking energy on a global scale will be a massive decline in population, which will at least save a lot of trees and water aquifers....

Dmitry Orlov said...

I delete the completely erroneous comments and try to respond to the simply wrong ones.

Peter -

At the time of the "accident" all 6 of the reactors were shut down, with the control rods fully raised. The design flaw you bring up has never caused a problem.

Adrian -

You recall incorrectly.

The rest will have to wait until Thursday.

CJones said...

One factor to consider when discussing the decline of nuclear power in the US is insurance. Anything of value or that which could cause any sort of damage/harm has to have some sort of liability insurance. There is no insurance company in the world that will underwrite an insurance policy for a nuclear power plant. So back in the 60’s and 70’s when nuclear power was consider the power of the future and it was a good thing, the government stepped in and helped underwrite the insurance. However, over the past few decades the government seems reluctant to take on such endeavors anymore. Why? Could be for various reason, like the fossil fuel industry lobbying to make it so. Or could be the market driven ideology, believing "big gov" needs to but out and let the free market decide such matters.

About the failed designs being labeled collectively/intrinsically stupid. Based on my experience in the world were engineering meets corporations, it is not so much they are stupid, more likely they were the cheapest, less expensive. The ill wills of today’s technology failures are not so much caused by poor engineering as they are caused by MBA’s. MBA’s that override engineers first designs by forcing them to cut corners, or even outsource cheaper engineering to places like India. For example I’m very confident in suggesting the Volkswagen emissions scandal was not caused by stupid engineers. No, I’m thinking a penny pinching MBA was making that call.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Nettle -

Speak for yourself. The rest of you, try to spot a winner and follow him.

Unknown said...

i don't think i'm radiophobic, but it's far from obvious to me that nuclear energy (or any other energy source) is the answer to our current predicament. let's assume that nuclear energy can replace fossil fuels in some meaningful time frame. what will that do to reverse the loss of wildlife, especially pollinating insects, due to pesticide use and habitat destruction? what will it do for the loss of arable land through overgrazing, urbanization and monoculture? how does nuclear energy address the devastation of littoral waters through agricultural runoff, over fishing and high density development? it occurs to me that expansion of nuclear power is equivalent to pouring gas into the tank of a car when the crankcase is leaking oil, the radiator has run dry and the tires are bald.

Grant Piper said...

With an engineering education and background I can appreciate what is technically feasible and 'sensible' or efficient. What the energy problem is, is Political. The Chicago School economic thought of privatise everything and maximise profit means that whatever the 'energy mix', it will be retailed to consumers at the highest possible electricy prices ('whatever the market will bear'). This alone will/has result in de-industrialisation of the West.

Kevin Frost said...

The fundamental problem with nuclear power is similar to the problem of nuclear weaponry. Late in the Second War thinking people were already sending up warning signals that the new technology presented grave threats. Or more accurately, the grave threat came from political leaders and the customary blend of passion, aggression, and ignorance that attend the political process – usually. The post war nuclear phobia was soundly based on a general perception that they were bad enough armed with massed firepower and long range bombers - but what now with the power we formerly associated with the thunderbolts of Zeus? Similarly, the problem is not technological; it's human and specifically political. I accept the argument that nuclear technology can be safely managed by competent and properly trained personnel. The problem is history and it's cycles of virtue and corruption. The spectre of nuclear power stations in a time of breakdown is the issue here. The pertinent lesson of history is that no political constitution has lasted for long without collapse, revolution, perhaps invasion or other vicissitudes. The Mamlukes of Egypt, I think, hold the record in the present epoch of about 800 years. To think about these matters realistically we should keep this concern in the background least we fall into the sort of wishful thinking induced by the arguments of salesmen and propagandists. The nature of human time is cyclic, not linear. I don't think this negates the endeavour necessarily but rather that the technological effort must entail a commitment to addressing the real and ever recurrent problems.

old dog said...

You might be too ready to dismiss Hydrogen, as a gas yes its bonkers but despite that it might give a use to all those redundant gas/petrol stations so I can see the appeal to industry. I was thinking of Ammonia easy to store and transport and if it comes from green feedstock ie solar or wind not hydrocarbons and can be produced efficiently in small independent units it makes sense.
Man the largest supplier of sea going diesel engines are looking at retrofitting, imagine the difference that could make, and ammonia fuel cell powered cars rather than pricey intensive batteries or Hydrogen fuel tanks at 10,000 psi or 700 bar, pressure for liquid ammonia, 7 bar. .

Regarding Nuclear I've not been a fan but see they might have a short term transitional role, I was hoping that Hitachi were going to develop their Prism Plutonium fed fast reactor here in the UK but looks like Gov won't pony up.

Matt said...

Hi Dmitry,

In upcoming posts, please also touch on the economics of nuclear power if you are willing and have knowledge of that aspect.

A thing I have never found a way to reconcile: If nuclear generated electricity is so plentiful and cheap per kg of fuel, how is it also so prohibitively expensive that a nuclear power program has apparently never successfully operated without spectacular ongoing government subsidies?

I get that the machinery is maybe some of the most complex we've ever invented, but isn't it also very, very productive?

I would love to understand this.

Thank you for your work, and your patience :)

JeanDavid said...

The conflict between science-engineering on the one hand and the politicians-bean-counters on the other has been causing problems even before widespread use of nuclear energy.

Shortly after WW-II, an uncle of mine was the manager responsible for the technical aspects running an oil refinery in north Africa (Algeria, if I remember correctly). At one point he decided to shut down the refinery so that urgent repairs could be made. The political manager said by all means make the repairs, but prohibited shutting the refinery down because that would reduce production. And the political manager over-ruled my uncle.

When the explosion came, it killed my uncle, and destroyed a lot of the refinery. So they lost production anyway. I was only about 12 years old at the time, so I may not have all the details right, but that is the gist of what happened. I believe the refinery was government owned, so that is why the political manager had all the real power.

Now an explosion of an oil refinery causes less long-term damage than that of a nuclear installation, but my uncle and his fellow workers are just as dead.

CS said...


The point is shrinking the technosphere - as I understood.
Nuclear powerplants may be a useful tool for civiliziation to go ahead as we know it.
All at the expenses of the biosphere. I agree somehow with the content of the article but the use of nuclear energy will only postpone some serious problems with our civiliazition model.

PatOrmsby said...

I tend to agree with you, Dmitri, that something went wrong at Fukushima that went beyond greed and incompetence. There is strong evidence that at least one of the emergency back-up generators stopped functioning before the tsunami arrived, and there were rumors from the workers at the plant that the diesel tanks had been left empty, so there was almost no fuel to run them to begin with. I don't even want to begin speculating what the purpose of such sabotage could be or who would do that. We'd also have to assume they knew a major quake that would produce a tsunami was coming, which I find unlikely. Japan's nuclear industry is riddled with cases of shocking incompetence, and its ring-of-fire location, with fault lines being discovered where initially none were thought to exist makes it probably a bad idea to locate nuclear facilities there, and most Japanese oppose nukes, but the government simply ignores their wishes and bulldozes ahead with reactor restarts.

The Japanese proved themselves capable of cutting back electricity consumption enough not to need those nukes in the short term, and the populace invested heavily in solar panels--through which they learned quickly what a non-solution that is. I think Japan would be better off developing and promoting clever means of enjoying life while using less and less energy. The sustainable society of the Edo period under the Tokugawa bakufu, though that was a tyranny, is fascinating for the cultural life that, in the absence of warfare, was allowed to flourish.
I have on my computer a report written in 2014 by one of the governmental investigators, Yoshinori Ito, titled "Station Blackout at Fukushima Daiichi Not Caused by the Tsunami," but I cannot find it anywhere on the Net now. If you would like to see it, I can e-mail it to you (two files--figs. in Japanese).

Unknown said...

The Fukushima nuclear disaster has actually killed very few people. Thousands died from the earthquakes, flooding, and preexisting medical conditions, yes. But there has been only one cancer-related death from radiation among the "suicide squads" of workers sent in during the peak of the catastrophe. The other fifty are walking about, perfectly fine today.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Grant -

You are exactly right, and privatization of the nuclear industry is what has destroyed it both in the US and the UK.

Kevin -

You have a point too, although there is another point to be made. Nuclear technology already exists, and experience has shown that it is best run by the government—just not the US government. It can't be trusted with nuclear weapons either, being the only country criminally insane enough to actually use them, and not even when its survival is at stake or to avoid defeat but just to make a point.

old dog -

Hydrogen is not a source of energy. It is a dangerous and inefficient energy carrier.

Matt -

Governments subsidize all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, and energy and overall cost considerations are not necessarily the most important. For example, the US government subsidizes highway construction to stimulate the use of private cars in order to maintain a market for gasoline, which is otherwise a useless component of each and every barrel of oil that's refined.

JeanDavid -

Nuclear installations tend to be more highly controlled and regulated than oil refineries, and it takes major political malfeasance to blow one up. The motivations that drive such disasters go far beyond the profit motive.

CS -

The technosphere will shrink automatically when the fossil fuel-based economy comes crashing down, and the consequences will be unnecessarily dire if all that's left are intermittent sources of power from sun and wind. Hydro won't provide for base load. Thus, nuclear turns out to be the technology whose absence will be far more detrimental than its presence.

PatOrmsby -

The reason Japan was chosen for this rapid denuclearization experiment is that it made the mistake of planning ahead for it and having enough conventional generation capacity to compensate for a complete nuclear shutdown. If this type of sudden nuclear shutdown were to happen in the US, there would no longer be an electric grid, and a few months later there would no longer be a US.

Karel van der Walt said...

Dmitry Do you take the Stuxnet/Fukushima suggestions seriously?

Matt said...

Hi Dmitry,

I take your point about the various reasons for government subsidies.

That still leaves my question (which I muddied, sorry) about the economics of generating electricity with nuclear power.

How is it simultaneously so cheap and so expensive?

Is there such a thing as a profitable nuclear powerplant without the subsidies?

Is it simply that the upfront cost is so great that no university trained economist is prepared to look long term enough to see it as viable?

Unknown said...


The best laid plans of mice and men. Eschatology trumps everything else

beppe bee said...

Part of the answer is under our feet. Geothermal energy works. The earths inner sun is there to supply energy long after we are extinct. Yellowstone Park could power most of the country. Personally, I believe it's too late in the game for science to save us. A wise man said "Can you say extinct, extincter, extinctest".

Unknown said...

At least the Russians are continuing to develop nuclear energy. Hopefully when the rest of the world decides to use it again, the Russians can sell them reactors.

Les said...

Replacing fossil fuel energy with nuclear one makes no sense to me. It has potential of prolonging existence of our industrial civilisation, that is certain, but by doing so it ensures total destruction of ecological systems. Without nature, humans can not live.
It is worth to remember, that industrial civilisation is rather short anomaly in a long history of humans.
Why to rescue what is not sustainable ?

Roger Chavez said...

Speaking of the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernoble, and Fukishima being caused intentionally:

Rather, they look like meticulously planned special operations involving officials at the highest levels and designed to achieve very specific (formerly) secret aims.

I am very open to the idea that things are not as they appear: 9/11, JFK assassination/alien beings from another planet , etc. I enjoy considering the "conspiracy theory", but I never considered the nuclear accidents to be intentional.

Dmitry has often mentioned conspiracy in passing, like the Las Vegas mass shooting, what am I not seeing?

Dirk Vermeerbergen said...

What i don't get is why, with all the sanctions the US is imposing on Russia they're still supplying the US with Uranium...

Kevin Frost said...

Following on from the previous comment which took notice of the problem of the limited duration of all political constitutions historians are familiar with and the challenges this poses to the need for very long term management commitments regarding the hazardous materials that nuclear power generates, a thought arose. I suppose that sociological thinkers will find this abhorrent but many of our ancestors, those of us with Indo-European ancestors, and others as well, formed castes and varnas to fulfill certain aims in human life. What I have in mind is a technological community that takes technology as a life commitment and not just a remunerative job. Possibly then in times of political crises or a situation where the govt. tills have been plundered and there's either no or insufficient support for administrative tasks the job could go on anyway because certain people are committed to keeping things working, and safely. The direction of this thought then is towards a certain 'mixed constitution' which doesn't put all its eggs in one (governmental) basket. Needless to say 'privatisation' hardly counts here.

Matthew Smallwood said...


In this case, Dmitri is the only person making any sense on the subject! I fully accept the Kunstler-Greer forecast for fossil fuels. But nuclear could be a way to shield the impact of the Long Descent, maybe the only way. We need to buy some time for resiliency to develop and also, it would be nice to not revert automatically to a millennia long Dark Stone Age following the "Time of Troubles".

Peter said...

I wish I had your confidence in nuclear fission Dmitri. Personally, I think the whole debate about where our electricity is going to come from in the 21st century is a distraction from the debate we should be having, which is, where is our food going to come from? Whole civilizations have risen and fallen without ever knowing or missing electricity, because it's not essential to life. Food is. The world population was around 1 billion in the year 1800. Largely thanks to the Industrial Revolution and petrochemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, the world population is now 7.5 billion. It's a reasonable guess that at the end of the Fossil Fuel Revolution it will be back to 1 billion - or less, because we will then have climate change and aquifer and topsoil depletion to deal with as well. Can you imaging any national leader standing up and saying "Sorry folks, but 6.5 billion of you have to go. Goodbye."? So by all means investigate the possibilities of nuclear fission, but for myself, I think I'll practice growing vegetables.

Robert Firth said...

To cope with the Time of Troubles I suggest we st up two Foundations, "at opposite ends of the planet"

Seriously, though, Kevin Frosts's idea was discussed extensively in the first half od the last century, by thinkers such as H G Wells, who put the idea into two novels, "The World Set Free" and "Things to Come". The former remains a good read: after an atomic war, the philosophers take over, set up a world government, and save the planet. Written in 1913, and prescient.

Thierry DECHAMBRE said...

And if it’s a fast neutron “breeder” reactor (which only Rosatom has managed to figure out) FAUX. En France, nous avons eu Phénix et SuperPhénix qui ont tous les deux fonctionné pendant des années même si actuellement ces deux réacteurs sont à l'arrêt et en cours de démantèlement. La filière des RNR, que la France maitrisait, a été abandonnée pour des problèmes de sûreté. Peut être que Rosatom n'a pas ce problème, je ne le sais pas. Par ailleurs, j'aimerai bien savoir quel fluide caloporteur est utilisé dans le circuit primaire des RNR russes ?