Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nuclear Who?

Somehow, I think the future of nuclear power isn't what is was a couple days ago... and I hope that I don't turn on my computer tomorrow and find that the worst has happened at that Japanese nuclear plant.

This is not impersonal for us: my wife is Japanese and her parents and 3 siblings live there.... but I'll spare you the platitudes. The really amazing thing to consider is what is happening all around us regarding failures caused by complexity.

There are 2 ways of looking (so far) at the nuclear plants in Japan:

1: Nuclear power is simply too dangerous irrespective of the outcome in Japan.

2: A 9.0 earthquake and tsunami proved that containment systems were sufficient in a worse case scenario (if that proves to be the case here).

I know this is anathema to many, but this disaster might just prove nuclear technology is capable of handling surreal disaster inputs - and it will definitely yield tons of data on what can be improved.


westexas said...

Globally and here in the US we are facing gargantuan costs associated with replacing our energy and transportation infrastructure--which means that in many cases, especially in developed countries, the energy and transportation infrastructure will, at best, only be partially replaced. Some counties are already letting paved roads go back to gravel roads, because they don't have the money to repave them. Here in Texas, in order to help balance the budget, the state is discussing eliminating funding to counties for road maintenance.

And after natural disasters like the one that just hit Japan, it seems increasingly likely that in many cases the infrastructure, at best, will only be partially replaced.

Given this premise, it would seem to make more sense than ever to live, or relocate to, an area that had thriving infrastructure in the pre-1948 era. I think that 1948 is a good demarcation line, because it probably marks the start of the post-war boom and it marks the point in time in which the US became a net oil importer. Also, in many cases, e.g., Dallas/Fort Worth, it marks the point in time in which the existing electric light rail and streetcar systems in many towns and cities started to be dismantled.

Anonymous said...

My, admittedly ignorant, take on this is that the Japanese reactors survived the earthquake just fine. It’s the tsunami taking out the backup generators that landed them in a world of hurt. Since all nuke plants are located near a water source with the sea being especially popular, most nuke plants probably have the same vulnerability.


Anonymous said...

I keep hearing, from armchair generals, that cesium has been detected and that means that there has been a containment breech. I can’t help but think that it does not prove anything. That is unless they know the isotope and concentration, but for whatever reason aren’t sharing this information with us. Hell, two of the reactors were shut down for maintenance, which probably means refueling; so even the shorter lived isotopes are probably sitting in a pond beside the plant.


Stephen B. said...

The containment structures may well indeed keep the reactor and contents from spilling out into the open environment, but given the cost of the power plant facility that has now been lost, and the (I'm sure) astronomical clean up costs to follow, even if this event proves nuclear to be safe in the strictest sense of the word, the investment lost means that such plants are basically a dead end at this point anyhow.

Following what Westexas said, it will be interesting to see how Japan's rebuild/recovery goes in this new era of expensive oil and slow economic growth.

My bet is rebuilding could be very difficult, even for a very disciplined people such as Japan's.

On the other hand, the fact that there seems to have been very little looting and other gross social misbehavior, along with a good deal of patience demonstrated by the crowds gathered in lines, awaiting emergency water, etc., suggests that if any of the industrialized nations can manage this rebuild, it will be Japan.

Still, regarding excess complexity - it's only a matter of time until excess complexity wins and people lose. 'Seems to me the latter is already pretty much the case.

Stephen B. said...

I wish your wife's family and friends the best.

Jehu said...

Japan has the best population character to survive a TSHTF event, but unfortunately also has insane levels of dependency on imported energy and food to sustain its incredible population density.

PioneerPreppy said...

I am watching the nuke plant developments closely. I am also hoping more complete and honest information will be forthcoming. The one thing I dislike about my property is the direct line of sight view I have of a nuke plant and they are trying to put another one in my county as well now. That is if they can get legislation passed to make the public fund it first anyway. I have often wondered about the logic behind placing a nuke plant this close to the New Madrid fault line.

I guess I should read up on plant safety and such a bit more.

I pray your family are all safe and well Greg.

Anonymous said...

Nuclear power, even if proven safe, is only spit in the bucket for our long term energy needs. We literally need a prayer (read Fussion or some huge leap in solar) if we are to have an energy future.

Anonymous said...

Read this today about the gulf on Sunday

Donal Lang said...

I used to be against nuclear power, but the sad fact is that France has 80% of its electricity coming from nuclear (and another 7% hydro), whereas UK has about 80% coming from fossils.
Ignoring all the carbon emissions stuff, this means that France has high speed electric rail to every part of the country, electric freight ditto, and is therefore partly insulated from Peak Oil. Britain, like the USA, in in deep doodoo!

As for Japan; they always knew they were going to get 'The Big One' sooner or later, and they thought they'd thought of everything (or at least enough) in safety backups. They've been proven wrong and bearing in mind their mindboggling debt levels, I don't think they'll ever recover. Given a choice, would you invest in them, or China?

There will be an impact worldwide as Japanese funds are withdrawn from worldwide investments though.

Maybe the first lessons would be to look at the two old nuclear plants in California. Look at this;
"Those plants were built to withstand a magnitude 7.5 earthquake, said Robert Alvarez, a nuclear expert at the Institute for Policy studies and a former senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy.

The San Francisco quake of 1906 measured 8.3, said Alvarez, while Friday's Japanese quake was a massive 8.9."

Here's the CNN article:

Meanwhile the flock of Black Swan Events still seems to keep on coming!

Anonymous said...

Did some numbers just to conceptualize the scale of things. Here is a basic break down of electricity generation of natural gas and compared to the scale of solar necessary to replace it. Obviously, I am basing this off PV cells rather than the sort of industrial scale units built as power plants.

260 Watt Panel: $569 - 3000 sq inches (20.8 sq ft)

Electricity from Natural Gas (23% of US total):

(3992 billion kWh/year * .23) / 12 = 76,513,333,333 kWh / month

Electricity from 260 Watt Solar Panel:

260 W * 8 hr/day * 30 day/month / 1000 W/kW = 63 kWh

Number of Solar Panels necessary to replace NG:

76,513,333,333 kWh/month / 63 kWh/month = 1,214,497,354 Panels

Cost of Solar Panels:

1,214,497,354 * $569 = $691,048,994,426 ($345,524,497,213 @ half price)

Square Feet they would cover:

1,214,497,354 * 20.8 = 25,261,544,963 sq ft (906 sq miles)

Size of Rhode Island

1,545 sq miles

Interestingly enough the sheer land mass used seems to be quite doable. even the cost could be considered reasonable if the rate of change is slow enough.

On a side note the same energy could be created by just 108 nuclear plants. Granted that is more than double the total number we have today. But some combination of the two along with Wind could certainly free up our natural gas for use in motor vehicles.

Stephen B. said...


One thing that jumps out at me about those calculations is that you assume 8 sun hours per day when in reality that number varies quite a bit by location due to cloud cover, never mind season. Some locations have an annual average of over 6.5 hours per day while others are around 3.5.

Insolation on the earth peaks at around 1000W per sq. meter of surface and again, different areas average different amounts of hours of this 1000 W/m2 per day on an annualized basis.

Computing your 20.8 sq ft panel at 260 watts works out to be about .1345 of the possible 1000W/m2 or 13.45 percent efficient which is a fair example of a contemporary panel.

I do some math and I come out with an area of somewhat more - 1829 sq miles at an average of 4 sun hours per day avg. for the continental US, using your panel efficiency and your US average monthly power consumption. Somewhere I required more land because I only credited the panels for 4 hours a day rather than your 8, but I must have gained something somewhere since my land area required should be double yours, but it's not.

Also, keep in mind that there is LOTS of roof area available in the US. One need not put that 1500 to 2000 sq. miles of panels on virgin land. Indeed, it would be more efficient to put the panels nearer the points of consumption (ie, on the buildings.)

Stephen B. said...

Also, taking your figures for the cost of those panels and throwing in another 50 percent for balance of system costs (roof racks, interconnects, string combiners, inverters, etc.) and then dividing by 108, I get around $4.8 billion.

I wonder if we really could build those 108 nuclear plants for only $4.8 billion each? Given the political situation, I tend to doubt it.

It sounds like solar is within the ball park in terms of price compared to nuclear for realistic construction costs or at least within the same order of magnitude of cost.

I wonder what happens to the cost of the various rare earth materials that are used to modify the silicon in the solar panels when we try to scale production up to such a behemoth scale? That is, I wonder of those panel cost figures scale?