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The Automatic Earth: How Black is the Japanese Nuclear Swan?

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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Mar-13-11 01:20 PM
Original message
The Automatic Earth: How Black is the Japanese Nuclear Swan?
Edited on Sun Mar-13-11 01:45 PM by GliderGuider
Stoneleigh is the co-editor of The Automatic Earth. The subject of her masters thesis at Warwick University in Coventry, England was nuclear safety research.

After graduation she became a Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, where her research focused on nuclear safety in Eastern Europe. She wrote a 100-page monograph that remains available through the Institute, that looks at the technical aspects of nuclear safety, safety upgrade programs, safety culture and the human factor, regulation at all levels and bargaining over reactor closures.

Her analysis of the Fukushima events are informed by what she believes is going to happen to global technological civilization over the coming decades, a view that I largely share. Along with a wealth of excellent technical information, she writes this commentary:

How Black is the Japanese Nuclear Swan?

Proponents argue that the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for nuclear power is sufficient to power our societies, that nuclear power can be scaled up quickly enough as fossil fuel supplies decline, that there will be sufficient uranium reserves for a massive expansion of capacity, that nuclear is the only option for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and that nuclear power can be operated with no safety concerns through probabilistic safety assessment (PSA). I disagree with all these assertions.

In my view, nuclear power represents an unjustified faith in the power of human societies to control extremely complex technologies over the very long term. Any activity requiring a great deal of complex and cooperative control will do badly in difficult economic times. Also, no human society has ever lasted for as long as nuclear waste must be looked after. It needs to be held in pools on site for perhaps a hundred years in order to cool down enough for permanent disposal, assuming a form of permanent disposal could be conceived of, approved and developed. During this period, the knowledge as to how this must be done will need to be maintained, and this may be more difficult than is currently supposed.

We need to evaluate the potential for a nuclear future in light of the disaster in Japan. This was not unpredictable, and should have been accounted for in any realistic assessment of nuclear potential. It cannot realistically be described as a black swan event.

We need to assess the risks inherent in using nuclear power in other locations, whether or not the risk they face is seismic (see Metsamor in Armenia, for instance, or Diablo Canyon in California). There are risks in many areas, most of which are grounded in human behaviour, either at the design stage or the operational phase. Human behaviour can easily turn what should be a one in one hundred thousand reactor-year event in to something all too likely within a human lifespan. Nuclear power may allow us to cushion the coming decline in fossil fuel availability, but only at a potentially very high price.

I share her views on our ability to maintain the level of technology and cooperative behaviour over the time-scales required to ensure the safety of nuclear power, the human tendency to under-estimate risks while seeking maximum advantage, as well as our psychological tendency to apply steep discount rates to long-term, abstract risks.

As a result I'm re-thinking my support of nuclear power in the light of the lessons of Fukushima.
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snagglepuss Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Mar-13-11 01:38 PM
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1. Excellent read. Thank you for posting.
Recommended.

:kick:
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AndyTiedye Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Mar-13-11 01:41 PM
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2. Kicked and Recommended
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AtheistCrusader Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Mar-13-11 02:08 PM
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3. At the least, I too am re-thinking my support of nuclear power.
At the very least, this highlights the need to:

A. Pass on the REAL costs of this power unsubsidized to the ratepayer, so they can make a free market decision for or against.
B. Remove federal insurance for the reactors. The utilities can find private sector insurance, or nothing, and shut down.
C. Re-think extension of ANY GE mark 1 or 2 BWR in the United States. At the least, these must be phased out, as the design has just proven itself unworthy.

Beyond that, I will keep an open mind.
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Mar-13-11 02:13 PM
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4. I'd like to see all those points applied to coal generation as well.
No nuclear, coal, natural gas or oil use without fully pricing in the externalities.

Let's put all our energy cards on the table and play a hand or two with full transparency...
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Bigmack Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Mar-13-11 02:37 PM
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5. Excellent excellent
MANY thanks for this post. Ms Bigmack
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phantom power Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Mar-13-11 04:29 PM
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6. phantom power's gloomy prediction for *this* week: coal and NG for the win
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bhikkhu Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Mar-13-11 05:59 PM
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7. This should bend the argument to conservation
if logic applies, as every energy source has big issues. I think nuclear was the one that could be called both clean (sort of) and very scalable to needs (assuming fuel availability).

There isn't really anything out there that we can use without causing big climate issues, and solar and wind work best in a program of deliberate conservation. Unfortunately asking people to use less still gets knee-jerk angry reactions in this country...
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