October 11, 2005
Tony Blair Privately For More Nuclear Plants In UK

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is saying privately that he is for construction of additional nuclear power plants in the UK.

TONY Blair has thrown his personal backing behind the expansion of nuclear power generation in Britain. The new reactors would be built on existing nuclear sites and replace those which are to be decommissioned in the near future.

The Prime Minister will sell the nuclear build programme to the public and the Labour Party as a job-creating solution to the problems posed by global warming and Britain’s growing dependence on imported energy supplies from unstable countries. The Prime Minister expects a year-long inquiry into Britain’s future energy requirements to conclude that more nuclear energy is the only practical way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Blair has privately disclosed that he is in favour of more nuclear reactors and that he expects the findings of the inquiry to make a case that can be supported by an all-party consensus.

Blair is responding to the failure of the EU to meet its Kyoto Accord CO2 reduction targets, the unlikelihood that even tougher reduction targets can be met without nuclear power, and public concern about dependence on oil from the Middle East. The war in Iraq and high oil prices are fueling (sorry, couldn't resist) that concern.

Publically Blair is warming to nuclear but not officially endorsing it.

Blair is prepared to go as far as he can without prejudging the nuclear review. A fortnight ago, he made the case for nuclear power to the Labour Party conference while stopping short of calling for its implementation.

"Global warming is too serious... to split into opposing factions on it," he told delegates. "And for how much longer can countries like ours allow the security of our energy supply to be dependent on some of the most unstable parts of the world?"

The Department of Trade & Industry confirmed on Friday that it has been holding discreet talks with major energy providers about nuclear options: E-On and RWE of Germany, and EdF of France. BNFL has a design for a new plant.

I have long argued for greatly accelerated development of new technologies as the most appropriate response to both the potential threat of global warming (about which I'm not much concerned) and the eventual exhaustion of fossil fuels energy sources. New energy technologies will be cleaner just in terms of ground level conventional pollutants and this alone is reason enough to develop them. Blair has recently demonstrated a new appreciation of the value of accelerated energy technology development. But will he allocate more public funds toward this purpose or make other policy changes that accelerate the rate of energy technology development?

Environmentalists signal the extent of their belief in the danger of global warming when they start arguing for nuclear power as an energy source. I think we could phase out the use of fossil fuels eventually by making solar energy our primary energy resource. But that requires many technological advances that lie in the future. We could make those advances come more quickly. The global warming alarmists ought to put half as much effort to lobbying for photovoltaics and battery research as they do in raising alarms about a supposed coming environmental disaster. We'd be better off with the resulting technology even if the global warming fears are exaggerated. However, while waiting for those advances for those who urgently want to reduce CO2 emissions nuclear is a necessary substitute for many uses of fossil fuels today.

Nuclear power has one sort of insurance policy advantage: If a huge volcanic eruption or a massive meteor ever blotted out the sun for a few years solar power would become worthless. Nuclear power would keep on ticking. If you want to survive natural disaster scenarios involving reduction of sunlight then nuclear is the best power source.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 October 11 11:36 AM  Energy Policy


Comments
Sensei said at October 11, 2005 1:00 PM:

That is an excellent point about nuclear power providing energy even if the sunlight is obscured for years. Arctic/antarctic habitats are best powered by nuclear. Underground shelters would be best powered by nuclear. Undersea habitats would be suited by nuclear power. Any interstellar voyage would necessarily be powered by some nuclear process.

Environmentalists have the political power to stop nuclear power in the US and Canada. Environmental saboutage is not out of the question, in fact is being taught covertly in more radical enclaves across north america.

Ivan Kirigin said at October 11, 2005 1:26 PM:

"Any interstellar voyage would necessarily be powered by some nuclear process."

I recall watching some space show (Nova, I think), about advanced ship designs. One looking like two cones, with this tips connected. One side was a shield that prevented the ship from falling apart from the nuclear explosions that propelled the ship. The other side was a collector for amassing the fuel for the fusion on the other side; going fast enough, the ship would pass through enough hydrogen even in deep space to use as fuel. Nuclear propellant without storing fuel :-D


What is the best measure for tracking the viability of solar. Is it simply $/KWhr ?

I was thinking that the people in less sunny regions of the US should partake in energy trading if they want to support a “good” energy source. If your local energy source isn't nuclear or hydro, invest the cost of creating a solar array (be it old-style panels, concentrators, or what have you) in a very sunny region, with the agreement that you earn the majority of the proceeds of the sale of electricity in the local sunny area.

Living in MA, I would be an idiot to install a solar-array on top of my house, if this option existed to create far more energy for the same price.

A better option is to pay more by choosing a better type of generation mechanism, if presented with a choice. My electric company doesn’t do it, but others let you pay more with the guarantee that the source is X. Most often, wind is alternative.

Joseph said at October 11, 2005 3:16 PM:

Nuclear is the best option for baseload and backup. If the situation permits fine then use alternatives such as solar/wind (though bare in mind major weather events might render those useless for days on end so you need backup power to run those homes, office buildings, hospitals, industrial plants etc.).

The envirofacscists can really only hinder, not stop new plant construction but the hindrance is costly. I'm waiting for the carterwhauling to commence when fast breeders begin entering the permit stage. Fusion might become viable in a few decades or a more unconventional approach to fusion may pan out. Barring such a thing though we'll need nuclear for quite awhile and we'll need breeders to stretch the fuel supply to a really useable duration.

Nuclear is definetly needed for human space exploration. Unless we intend to curl up into our belly buttons forever here on earth a faster form of travel is needed. The Orion project had some value (it actually could have worked). I still smile when I remember the old joke. The alien captain turns to his first officer and says " These Hoomans are propelling their space ships by detonating thousands of WHAT behind them"!! There has been some modeling done on using magnetic compression/channeling on small amounts of fissiles for propulsion which looks very interesting. Also there's the old reliable "Atomic Lightbulb" for a propulsion system which is not really as dangerous as it sounds and would be extremely effecient. Greenpeace would terminally void their collective bowels if such a spacecraft ever flew but it's really very practical.

As far as the fusion ramscoop it might be possible once fusion science is well in use. There were supposed casual studies done to determine if the interstellar medium could support such a thing and no real conclusions could be made at that time. Any SF fans interested in the concept should read Paul Andersons' "Tau Zero".

Sione Vatu said at October 11, 2005 6:08 PM:

Nuclear power may have a shot at replacing coal for electricity generation. There are some issues to consider:

Waste products and by-products
Despite US govt. lunacy when it comes to these materials, there is a strong case for reprocessing and re-using. There is also a good case for fast breeder reactors. What is the solution here?

Accidents
When these do occur (and they will continue to occur) the damage to people and property is immense. This is one serious problem that stalls the nuclear option.

Security/Politics
It is a matter of time before a criminal outfit obtains the capability to detonate some sort of nuclear weapon in a populated area. Chances are this will occur in the United States (it's just a matter of who does it and when they do). More nuclear facilities increase the risk unfortunately.

Capital expense and operating expense
At the moment these are unecessarily high. A significant amount of these costs are due to regulation, legislation, operating consents (lots and lots of time and money and resouces to jump through all the hoops), lobbying efforts and litigation. It can take decades to navigate through the consent process. These barriers to entry are arbitrary and require minimisation or elimination.

Technology
Let's face it. Much of what we have now is based on military technology (that is, weapons). This is a source of political instability and concern. Completely new technology and designs would be a necessity.


Each of these issues is related to the others in one way or another. It may be very difficult to attend to them all. It is likely current technologies do not allow that. The new technology appears to offer a possible way out of the problems surrounding the nuclear option. It may be able to alleviate or solve the drawbacks. So far I have heard about ideas/advances such as using molten lead as the coolant for the reactor core, gas working fluids, pebble beds, accelerator based or catalysed reactors (seems this idea originated in Switzerland of all places) and thorium cycles etc.

An important question is whether huge new power-plants are indeed required or whether distributed generation is going to take over (in which case the nuclear technolgy hurdle is even greater). Are nuclear technologies able to be miniturised?

Anyway, I'm most interested if anyone knows about the latest technologies in nuclear energy. Please post!

Sione

Tdean said at October 12, 2005 12:12 AM:

Randall: “Environmentalists signal the extent of their belief in the danger of global warming when they start arguing for nuclear power as an energy source.”

I would strongly counsel speaking for yourself. This statement presumes that environmentalists can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Any reasonable person can understand that eliminating one risk and replacing it with a greater one provides no net benefits and is beyond stupid if other less dangerous options are available. Of course the problem that come to the fore in this discussion is how do you evaluate the risks and benefits of various technologies for generating electricity? And having done that, how do you make a rational policy decision in the face of massive nuclear industry lobbying and propaganda efforts to ensure billions of dollars of direct and indirect taxpayer subsidies to guarantee the viability of their investments?

The analysis of risk when it involves highly complex systems, very unlikely events and the quirkiness of human behavior is almost absurdly complex, if not impossible to do in any rigorous fashion. This was made clear when highly respected engineers, writing in Scientific American, computed the likelihood of a meltdown of a nuclear reactor as being orders of magnitude less than the probablility of a meteor striking a reactor, just a few months before the Three Mile Island disaster showed that there was something way off in their calculations. What they missed was the concept of cascading failures exacerbated by human panic leading to operators doing precisely the opposite of the right thing when everything started going to hell.

Still, it can be reasonably argued that nuclear reactors don’t fail catastrophically very often. Only two or three have had really bad problems and they weren’t exactly mega-disasters. The real question is “How often is too often?” The magnitude of risk for a given sort of failure depends not only on how often it is likely to occur, but also what the cost of a failure is that is associated with that probability. So even if an event is only likely to happen once in a hundred years, if that event creates costs of a hundred trillion dollars, it is probably unacceptable. And that is the case with nuclear power even without considering the added risk of terrorism. A complete meltdown could release tons of radioactive isotopes over a very wide area and render a state-sized area uninhabitable. The cost of such a catastrophe is hard to calculate, but it is quite likely greater than the value of all of the electricity ever generated by all of the nuclear reactors that ever existed. And the unimaginable cost of such a disaster is precisely why the nuclear industry insists on disaster liability protection from the Price-Anderson Act. In that way, Big Energy gets all the profits and the taxpayers take all the risk. Such a deal!

Now that we know that terrorists are definitely gunning for our nuclear reactors, it doesn’t really matter what the probablility of an intrinsic system failure is. It only matters how competent the terrorists are. What is the likelihood that anti-US terrorists will acquire a nuclear weapon in the next twenty years? I think it’s pretty high, better than 50/50. How long would it take terrorists to develop a penetrator weapon that would blast the fuel assemblies to little pieces and render all those sophisticated redundant safety systems worthless? Five years? Ten? However you look at it, any technology that concentrates tons of radioactive isotopes into a very tiny place is subject to being vaporized and lofted into the stratosphere by an atomic weapon and produce a disaster a thousand times worse than Chernobyl. Why do we need that when we have distributed, renewable power sources like wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, clean, carbon-sequestered coal power…? And when you consider the billions of dollars in government subsidies, guarantees and the value of free Price Anderson insurance, nuclear isn’t even close to competitive with the most exotic renewables. The only reason that it is being considered at all is that big energy moguls and well connected contractors can make billions of dollars building nuclear reactors, and then just walk away scott free when it all goes bad. And that has been the secret of nuclear profitability from day one.

Relatively speaking, I don’t worry about global warming much either, much less massive volcanic eruptions or meteor impacts that have a recurrence time of 50 million years or so. What nonsense!

Alan Little said at October 12, 2005 2:55 AM:

> If the situation permits fine then use alternatives such as solar/wind (though bare in mind major weather events might render those useless for days on end

Not even that major. I'm not an expert, but the kindergarten my son attends (built last year) has a solar power installation and the meter is by the main entrance. I look at it when I'm going in and out. I have idea how big it is or what technology it's using, but peak output on a really sunny day appears to be about 11kw (not or barely, I would guess, enough the run the building). What's really interesting/surprising is just how little cloud or haze it takes to drop that by more than half.

(I live in Munich, where the weather is significantly better than e.g. Britain, but not as good as e.g. Arizona. I hope now that the Greens are out of the German ruling coalition, some hint of sanity will prevail and the previous government's policy of decommissioning and not replacing Germany's reactors will be dropped)

Hugh Angell said at October 12, 2005 3:07 AM:

It was interesting seeing the revised figures on Chernobyl recently. This 'worst ever'
nuclear mishap does not appear to have been anywhere near as devastating as it was
portrayed at the time. Of course portraying it in the worst possible light fit into two
plans at the time. The anti communist movement and the anti nuclear movement were in
rare convergence over Chernobyl so it seems, bad as the incident was, it was painted in
somewhat gloomier colors than were really necessary.

In the US today about 15% of our electrical power comes from nuclear plants. Reliability
has been going up, reportable accidents going down. That is because, among other things,
keeping those plants up and running is very lucrative. Down along the gulf coast Entergy
kept 2 plants running even during the hurricanes and shut down its Waterford plant just
across the Mississippi from New Orleans as a precaution but it is back on line now. Good
thing too, as a number of its fossil fuel plants in the region were KO'd by the hurricanes.

That should be the way to approach nuclear power's risk. As compared to what? Building
any other form of energy to replace nuclear does not come risk free. Coal plants have an
environmental impact and public health cost too. Increasing gas fired generation will
involve opening up the OCS to drilling and building LNG terminals which, to hear the
critics, are also prime terrorist targets. Solar is nice but it is expensive and doesn't
meet base load requirements.

I think the US would be better off allowing the construction of new, more advanced nuclear
power plants rather than seeking, as we are currently doing, to extend the lives of our
existing fleet. Locating new plants adjacent to existing plants solves the siting issue.
Three Mile Island notwithstanding the overall safety record of nuclear power in the US is
very good. How many thousands of years of have there been of nuclear power plant
operation have there been without significant fatality? Would that commercial aviation or
the coal mining industry could boast of an equivalent safety record. As we have seen a
mining disaster can take many lives and a 757 makes a formidable weapon but we soldier
on and learn from past mistakes. Nuclear power has yet to cause a comparable disaster to
a single 747 crash or mine explosion yet, because 'radioactivity' has a sinister aura
about it, we fear it more than mercury in our fish or thousands of 100 ton aluminum tubes
stuffed with people travelling overhead at the speed of a .38 calibre bullet.

Engineer-Poet said at October 12, 2005 8:01 AM:
In the US today about 15% of our electrical power comes from nuclear plants.
Twenty percent.

I'd like to know the source for the claim that terrorists are targeting nuclear plants.  A reactor containment building is a very hard target, which could probably shrug off the impact of a jetliner without great damage.  Taking out a plant would require specialized weaponry and a lot of setup, during which the operation would be at risk.  Far easier to hit office buildings with low-tech methods, or recruit estranged students to carry bombs.

nordic said at October 12, 2005 8:44 AM:

Tdean:

It seems that the biggest nuclear security problem we have had recently comes from your pals the chicoms peddling their designs around.

AA2 said at October 12, 2005 10:46 AM:

It really seems world opinion is turning back to being pro-nuclear power. Nuclear power has silently been coming down in price as well. A huge factor considering most areas have a limited amount of capital to work with.

The South Koreans, which as we all know here are very pro-technology, just put in 3 nuclear plants at 1 gigawatt each, for 6 billion dollars. So 2 billion a gigawatt which is cheap, especially when you factor in the fuel costs of nuclear are negligible. Even if the cost of uranium went up by 10 times, customers would not see a noticeable change in their power bills.

GE is claiming that their newest design can be put in for 1 billion dollars. Although I personally think that is optimistic, and depends on factors like regulations and labor costs. Aka it might be doable in China but not neccessarily in America.

AA2 said at October 12, 2005 10:55 AM:

I wanted to stress an important point. Nuclear power is going to decline in cost as time goes on. For example each new generation of reactors burns a higher percentage of the fuel. Which is more cost effective and maybe more importantly means less waste. Then importantly is advances in material sciences. So building the parts of the nuclear reactor out of materials that are cheaper yet more effective.

Another area is designing the plants so they will automatically shut down before melting down. Such as creative gravity fed systems. Then automating the processes in the plant to reduce costs.

Many advocates of alternative energies project that their favorite source will come down in price over time. And surely they are correct. But they don't factor in that other mainstream energy technologies can do the same thing. And potentially come down by a much more substantial margin. For example I believe nuclear will be able to come down in price much faster then solar, as solar ultimately only so much energy is hitting each square meter of land. Whereas with nuclear you are looking at incredible energy density and potential to pull out.

AA2 said at October 12, 2005 11:08 AM:

And the other factor I wanted to mention while I am here is the scale we are talking about. Some people project other sources could meet today's energy needs in say 2055 by looking at how those sources are getting better over time.

But in 2055 technologies will have to meet 2055 energy needs, which I believe will be far beyond today's needs. For example even in America which is already a developed nation and high energy user, I saw the US government project that electricity needs will double by 2030. Which sounds insane, until you realize its the reality of exponentials. Doubling by 2030 means only a 3% annual growth. And US population is increasing by 1% a year, and maybe more with illegal immigration. So merely a 2% rise in per capita consumption per year and that means the grid will need to produce double what it does in 2005. And 2055 is another doubling above 2030. So that will be 4 times today's needs.

Then the reality is globally China, India and the rest are likely to grow much faster then that, as they are not anywhere even near 2005 US levels of per capita usage. The US uses around 3.6 trillion watts according to the CIA worldfactbook. And the world today uses 14 trillion watts annually. So America is more then 25% of electrical usage, yet only 4.5% of the global population.

Imagine this high growth scenario. By 2055 the average person in the world uses 50% of what the average American uses in 2055. Instead of less then 20% as much of America's 2005 per capita use in 2005.

American ELECTRICAL use in 2055 if it quadruples based on a 3% per year growth would be 14.4 trillion watts. Globally at 50% of US per capita would be 4.5%x2 = imagine then America is 10% of global electricity use. That means world use would be 144 trillion watts in 2055. Which is 10 times today's' production.


Tdean said at October 12, 2005 3:29 PM:

E_P: “A reactor containment building is a very hard target, which could probably shrug off the impact of a jetliner without great damage.”

Hard is relative. There has been extensive testing and simulation of planes crashing into reactors after 9/11 and it seems most of the results have been classified. “In 1974, a study by General Electric, a major reactor manufacturer, indicated that the explosive impact of a jet such as the one that flew into the Pentagon would be enough to penetrate a nuclear reactor containment building, disabling the emergency core cooling system, and likely causing the release of highly radioactive material.” http://www.sustainableenergy.org/resources/nuclear_safety/terrorist_nukes_denman.htm

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that there continues to be considerable controversy surrounding the vulnerability of typical nuclear reactors to impacts by airliners.

But I think that with respect to terrorists crashing planes into targets most terrorists would say, “ Been there, done that.” Instead we should look to the unexpected, or at least to the new. If terrorists are able to produce a purpose-designed penetrator and precisely guide it to a nuclear reactor, there is no doubt that it could penetrate the containment building without expending a large percentage of it’s kinetic energy, and then crash into the pressure vessel structures. In that case, there is a high likelihood of a breech and release of radioactive material, the mass of which that resides in the nuclear core is some 1000 times greater than that contained in the Hiroshima bomb.

Those details and uncertainties become moot if terrorists obtain a nuclear device.

Nordic: “It seems that the biggest nuclear security problem we have had recently comes from your pals the chicoms peddling their designs around.”

I’ve heard that China may have provided some technology to Pakistan in the development of it’s nuclear weapons. I’m not sure, but we do know that the Chinese are generally interested in making a few bucks. Whatever the case is with the Chinese, it is certain that the shaky regime of Musharraf in Pakistan has a number of nuclear weapons. If the Islamic extremists that abound in Pakistan manage to take power, there would be a very real possibility that nuclear devices could end up in the hands of terrorists very quickly. If successfully smuggled into the US, Mexico or Canada, the device could easily be delivered via a corporate jet to nuclear reactors near the borders and or near large cities. I would call that a “clear and present danger”. Nuclear power plants are not hard with respect to nuclear attack and a nuclear core vaporized by a nuclear explosion would destroy far more property, lives and economic value than the industry is worth. Nuclear power is not a viable option in the current context of worldwide terrorist threat. Period.

Tdean said at October 12, 2005 5:52 PM:

E-P: "I'd like to know the source for the claim that terrorists are targeting nuclear plants. "

It was diagrams of US nuclear reactors found in Al Qaida papers in Afghanistan in the early days of the war:


http://web.redding.com/newsarchive/20020131terror035.shtml

Joseph said at October 12, 2005 5:53 PM:

Engineer Poet

Okay you just had to give the self professed expert on all an opening. Well I'm abandoning this threat since I don't care to see the assinine postulations of said individual addressing a subject he has no grasp of other than reading highly questionable text from vague google sites.

Addressing the point you made though the highest probability of damage would come from an explosive device setup like the old HESH warheads. You'd need at least a twin engine aircraft, a "skilled" unflinching pilot ready to die and I'd estimate at least 800lbs of high grade mil spec explosive with the appropriate containment matrix,timers etc.. I doubt even then that the dome would crack but the spalling would thoroughly damage the interior to the point of requiring it's full decomissioning. That would be the lowest tech method of direct attack with any chance of success. This would of course be defeated by the simple addition of a spall liner within the dome (this may in fact allready exist in the form of sound/vibration dampening material or multi layer construction, such designs and specs are not available for public consumption).

Of course using other people's tdiouse arguments there's no reason the terrorists couldn't purchase all material required for a THOR platform from radio shack. Then by welding 55 gal drums together they could build a launch vehicle and put the platform into orbit from where they could attack at will all nuclear power plants.

Engineer-Poet said at October 12, 2005 6:38 PM:

Tdean:  The reactors were hard targets then, and harder now.  They were hard enough that there were no specific plans to hit them (high effort, high probability of failure).  New reactors built deep underground (so that they could be located under cities, allowing the waste heat to be used for space heat in winter) would be completely invulnerable to such attacks.

Joseph:  Cracking the containment would just force the plant to shut down until repairs were made.  It would not cause a Chernobyl.  An explosive penetrator is another matter, but how is a terrorist group going to be able to test such things?  A small error in targeting and it's a dud.  How does a suicide pilot train on the proper flight profile?

This is why I'd love terrorists to focus on reactors as targets:  they are far more likely to be caught due to their preparations being noticed, and far more likely to fail if they get so far as an attempt.

Tdean said at October 12, 2005 7:19 PM:

Joe,

Make any excuse you like to not answer my points; it matters not at all to me. I've talked to several real nuclear engineers and scientists about the dangers of penetrators and they either agree that it a serious problem or they get a funny look on their face and say they can't discuss it. So why would I care what your uninformed opinion was?

E-P; "They were hard enough that there were no specific plans to hit them." No specific plans we know of. We are a lot less likely to know specific plans for attacking nuclear plants than we are to know where OBL is. He's been running AND hiding for four years now and our people are clueless. Yeah, it's a pattern. And you fit it like a glove.

But it is pretty obvious to the casual observer that you two high power intellectuals failed to address the most significant point: that terrorists can get their hands on nuclear warheads in the near term, that an attack on a nuke power plant hugely multiplies the damage and US plants are clearly vulnerable to this type of attack.

You say "high effort, high probability of failure" which clearly shows a lack of understanding of risk analysis. Risk weighted value is the probability of occurance times the cost. If the cost is in the trillions of dollars, the terrorists recognize, even if you don't, that acquiring the means to attack a nuclear reactor is worth a lot of effort and risk.

Tdean said at October 12, 2005 8:07 PM:

And for those who would like to actually see what the real experts say and do about nuclear terrorism, rather than just talk through your hats, here is a good paper from the folks who brought you Hiroshima and Little Boy:

http://www.lanl.gov/orgs/d/d5/LEDPubs/(SE)_Risk_of_Nuclear_Terror.pdf

Take special note of figure 4, what happens when terrorists are given a nuclear weapon.

Engineer-Poet said at October 12, 2005 9:15 PM:

You're wrong; the terrorists cannot afford lots of failures.  They need a string of successes to be taken seriously by their supporters.  9/11 was done for less than a million dollars, and was almost a guaranteed success once the hijackers were in the air.  Skyscrapers, defenseless, were excellent targets.

This is not true of commercial power reactors.  Even when the Israelis hit the reactor at Osirak, they needed the use of extremely accurate bombing and several bombs in succession to guarantee destruction of the reactor.  They had aircraft with excellent targeting systems and the whole Negev desert in which to practice.

Where is an Al Qaeda team going to practice bombing runs?  With what ranging and targeting gear?  With what impactors?  With what aircraft?  Any one of those elements is a red flag to the US; all of them would paint a huge bullseye over the effort.

Taking down an AQ aerial bombing effort, capturing their personnel and destroying their gear and back-tracking to their money people would be a huge blow due to the amount of investment lost.  Imagine if they effectively handed us some of their top Saudi financiers' heads on a platter.  They'd hurt badly, and they might not recover.

That's why I want them to try stupid things like that.  They'd fail, and in failing they'd lose.

Engineer-Poet said at October 12, 2005 9:22 PM:

Figure 4 has nothing to do with an attack on a commercial nuclear power reactor; that is scenario 5, and has a relative risk of about 7 on a scale of 100.  Neither does commercial nuclear power in the USA have anything to do with weapons availability to foreign terrorists.

If Al Qaeda gets a bomb, they're likely to put it on a ship and detonate it as soon as it gets into port.  Moving it to the site of a reactor just increases their risks and multiplies the opportunities to turn their effort into a very public flop.  Alas, they're not stupid enough to try it.

Tdean said at October 13, 2005 4:20 AM:

E-P,

"Where is an Al Qaeda team going to practice bombing runs?" Where did they practice running airplanes into buildings? To a large degree it was on MS Flight Simulator. Israel attacked the Iraqi reactor 25 years ago. GPS, computers and simulation software, and pentrating weapons have come a long way in that time.

"With what ranging and targeting gear?" How much would it cost to develop from scratch, pseudo-random code radio sources that would allow a warhead to passively establish it's position within a couple of feet ala GPS? Not much. The sources would have to be surveyed in three or four locations a few days before the attack. Not a big deal. A falling bomb is very simple physics.

Red flags? How many tons of cocaine, marijuana, hashish, heroin... is smuggled into the US every year? Why in the world is a nuclear warhead any different? And it could be smuggled into Canada or Mexico and put into a corportate jet and be in New York or Texas in two shakes. Just detonate on impact. And how do you know what Al Qaeda is likely to do? If they can take out a state, why would they choose a city? Just blather.

It was eight years between the first attack on the WTC and the successful one. These are very patient people, with unlimited funds and all the time in the world. And they are highly motivated to execute the largest possible attack. Big, fat defenseless targets like nuclear reactors that could eliminate a state sized patch of land is definitely what they are looking for. Unfortunately the terrorists don't suffer from such a lack of imagination or willingness to take fatal risks.

"Figure 4 has nothing to do with an attack on a commercial nuclear power reactor" I didn't say figure 4 was exclusively about attacks on nuclear reactors, did I?. But Figure four includes scenario 5, so it does have something to do with an attack on a commercial nuclear power reactor, doesn't it? Keep reading - you'll get the hang of it some day. Pathetic. The extent to which some people will twist the truth to keep their heads in the sand.

Engineer-Poet said at October 13, 2005 7:07 AM:
To a large degree it was on MS Flight Simulator.
Which is fine for aiming at a building over a thousand feet tall, where any hit is success.
Why in the world is a nuclear warhead any different?
There's this phenomenon called "spontaneous fission", which causes another phenomenon called "radiation" both directly and indirectly.  There are also these gadgets called "scintillation counters"....
And how do you know what Al Qaeda is likely to do? If they can take out a state, why would they choose a city?
Think about how long the effects of hitting the plant would be deferred.  People might have time to evacuate.  Hitting the city directly would cause lots of prompt casualties and much more chaos.
The sources would have to be surveyed in three or four locations a few days before the attack.
That's exactly the sort of action which would tip off authorities to the plot.  You catch the surveyor, you uncover the plot and roll up the cell.  You probably capture a lot of people with very specialized expertise and grab a lot of expensive equipment, both very difficult to replace.

The risks of such a plot are very high.  That's why we're unlikely to see one; the elements which could make it successful would be far better employed elsewhere.

Paul Dietz said at October 13, 2005 11:19 AM:

Nuclear power is indeed getting cheaper. As another example of this, the Canadians have made a breakthrough in the production of heavy water (their CANDU reactors are heavy water moderated). The advance is an effective catalyst for the rapid exchange of deuterium and hydrogen atoms between gaseous hydrogen and water. Previously, such catalysts were ineffective due to wetting -- even a thin water layer greatly slows diffusion of hydrogen to the catalyst, due to the low solubility of hydrogen in water. They got around this by mixing finely ground catalyst particles and hydrophobic polymer particles (such as teflon).

Reducing the cost of heavy water reduces the capital cost of CANDU reactors. The advance also makes any electrolytic-hydrogen production plant into a heavy water plant -- just flow the outgoing hydrogen past the incoming water in a countercurrent column filled with the catalyst and nearly all the deuterium is stripped from the gas and returned to the water. In equilibrium, the water in the cell becomes nearly pure heavy water. This means that heavy water will be dirt cheap even in the supposedly green 'solar-hydrogen' economy -- and heavy water moderated reactors have been one of the favorite approaches for nuclear proliferation, since they don't require uranium enrichment.

Tdean said at October 13, 2005 1:49 PM:

E-P,

OK, enough tedium. I say that a successful terrorist attack on a nuclear reactor is all but inevitable, you say it's impossible, not to worry. I am sure that if, in 2000 I had warned that hijacked airliners could be used to destroy large buildings, you would have come up with twenty great sounding reasons why it would never happen. The Los Alamos paper clearly indicates that some very bright people are worrying about it, but ironically, secrecy doesn't permit them to discuss some of the more dangerous and less obvious threats. This leads to a very unbalanced discussion of nuclear power at the political level, and that is not in the public interest. That is why I bring it up and I have made my point. Let us all hope that Al Qaeda brings the few kilos of uranium or plutonium needed through the few ports of entry that have scintillation detectors. I doubt that they would be so considerate.

Hugh Angell said at October 13, 2005 5:58 PM:

E-P

I agree with you that a 'military' style assault on a nuclear power plant ( or any other
high profile target) might be difficult, and worse for the terrorists, defeated ( nothing
like an attack foiled to cause your people to lose heart) but what about the electronic
threat?

Personally, I am not worried, but then I am an illiterate. The theory goes, or so I have
heard, that a disgruntled ex employee or some such insider, makes available to a highly
skilled computer hacker the 'operators manual' to a nuclear power plant. Using the
vulnerability created by "Scada" systems, the terrorist creates false readings on the
operators control system or simply 'shuts off' the controls.

That to me is the only real plausible danger in nuclear power plants. PG&E hires Mohammed
Atta Jr. as a software engineer at Diablo Canyon and while there he makes possible an
attack and/or prevents those in charge from overiding the effort.

Engineer-Poet said at October 14, 2005 7:26 AM:

Diablo Canyon is already certified and unlikely to be redesigned.

As for future plants.... hacker-proofing sounds like a good argument for pebble bed modular reactors, doesn't it?

Tony said at October 16, 2005 2:12 PM:

If terrorists do get hold of nuclear weapons (presumably from Iran), and detonate one in the US (whether a reactor, NYC or wherever), then I would think the logic outlined by analyses such as The Three Conjectures start to come into play.

Of course, if the Islamists were to amenable to the philosophy of MAD, then they wouldn't let these weapons get into terrorist hands. But they're not, and *that* is the problem - not whether they can or can't successfuly destroy a nuclear reactor. IMHO.

Tdean said at October 16, 2005 10:44 PM:

Tony,

A nuclear device detonated in the middle of a city is certainly a problem, as a lot of folks from Hiroshima would be happy to relate. But with about a thousand times the radioactive material, a commercial nuclear reactor being vaporized by a nuclear device would guarantee that a city covered by the resultant plume of fallout would remain unoccupied much longer than the sixty years since Hiroshima. Terrorists know this and they certainly are not deterred by time, expense or the likelihood of retaliation. It's a whole new world out there and the cold war mentality seen in the Bush administration's expanded subsidies to push the feeble nuclear industry back to profitability is a dangerous and very expensive policy designed only to pump taxpayer money into the pockets of rich industrialists.

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