March 22, 2011
George Monbiot: Now Hard Core Nuclear Power Supporter

Writing in Britain's Guardian, George Monbiot makes a great point as he comes out for nuclear power in the wake of the failures of the Fukushima reactors: in spite of a very rare combination of severe geological events followed by mistakes on the part of reactor site workers and higher management, yes, in spite of all that what happend? With a reactor designed with 40 year old technology the result was far less than the worst case outcome scenarios.

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

I am not entirely persuaded by the point. But I want to be persuaded because the world needs every major energy source that exists. Look at the price of oil. Look at the rising difficulties with extracting oil. Look at the gray skies of Chinese cities. We need cleaner energy sources and can't afford to lose one.

Monbiot goes on to point out how inappropriate solar power is for a country like Britain that lies so far north. The densely populated European countries can't use much wind power without going offshore and that's more expensive. Solar power in North Africa delivered by cables into Europe is one discussed option. But with a civil war raging in Libya that option is looking dimmer. Does Europe want to put itself at risk so much more more political instability?

Most reactors do not sit near a subduction zone where one continental plate is getting squeezed under another plate. So most reactors aren't located where 9.0 quakes or 7 meter tsunamis are possible. Most reactors are not built as low to the ocean. Newer reactors have better safety features. Plus, this accident in Japan, rather like airplane crashes, will get heavily picked over by engineers to learn how to prevent even the level of failure we saw at Fukushima. Even better newer reactor designs have much better passive safety features that make them less vulnerable to failures.

As I've already pointed out the nuclear power industry could develop many tools and capabilities to rapidly deliver to a reactor site should multiple pieces of equipment fail at a reactor. Even if all the power generation and cooling systems of a reactor fails off-site equipment should be available for delivery within hours of the start of an incident.

Steve LeVine argues that our energy sources face multiple problems. There's not an easy solution.

What's going on is economic fear, but also a global energy system under severe stress. Over the last several months, we've learned the hard way in incredibly coincidental events that we are in firm control of almost none of our major sources of power: Deep-water oil drilling can be perilous if the company carrying it out cuts corners. Because of chronically bad governance by petrostates, we can't necessarily rely on OPEC supplies either. Shale gas drilling may result in radioactive contamination of water, though who knows since many of the companies involved seem prepared to risk possible ignominy and lawsuits later rather than proactively straighten out their own bad actors. As for much-promoted nuclear power, we know now that big, perfect-storm, black-swan natural disasters can come in twos.

Why do oil companies drill for oil in deep water with half billion dollar drilling platforms? Because that's where most of the new oil fields are going to be found. Offshore oil could make up 40% of world oil production by 2015. We are getting energy from politically, geologically, and technologically challenging sources because those are the sources that are left. The cost of solar power isn't dropping fast enough and solar and wind have big problems with intermittency. There is no one clear great solution for our energy needs.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 March 22 11:22 PM  Energy Nuclear

Bruce said at March 23, 2011 9:10 AM:

"may result in radioactive contamination of water"

If its in the NY Times, it is probably a lie financed by George Soros who sees his chance to make a billion off of the big green con going down the drain thanks to Shale Gas.

kurt9 said at March 23, 2011 10:44 AM:

If we don't get fusion (polywell or otherwise), fission nuclear power is the only game in town. This is reality. Although I think hydrocarbon fuels are more plentiful than the "peak oil" people claim, we will run out of them sooner or later. Nuclear processes are 6 orders of magnitude more efficient at generating energy than chemical process per amount of fuel used. This fact guarantees that nuclear processes will become the prime source of energy production regardless of the bleating and whinging of all of the "greenie" types. The Gen IV plants have passive cooling and other safety features that would prevent a Fukushima-style problem from occurring.

BTW, the Fukushima reactors, despite being the first generation commercial power plants, were not "crappy, old" reactors. They worked perfectly fine. The problem inherent to this design is the need for active cooling following shutdown and the failure of TEPCO, due to bureaucratic BS, to have the back-up generators on higher ground or to have some in another locating where they could have been quickly choppered in. The problems would never have occurred had these provisions been in place. These provision should be made for the California plants as well, as they are also in both Earthquake and tsunami zones.

The reality is that nuclear power is the only option.

Kralizec said at March 23, 2011 2:27 PM:
Why do oil companies drill for oil in deep water with half billion dollar drilling platforms? Because that's where most of the new oil fields are going to be found.
I'm pretty sure the purpose of drilling is not new oil fields, but oil, in which case the simple circumstance that the ANWR and so much of the ocean on the Americans' coast are off limits seems to warrant mention.
Wolf-Dog said at March 23, 2011 4:29 PM:

Some new reactor designs will be such that there will be no danger of a severe radiation.

In addition, these new designs are going to burn a much higher percentage of the uranium fuel (including the waste products), as much as 50 % of the non-fissile uranium during the process of progressive breeding, meaning that a lot less fuel will be needed and there will be far less waste.


Separately, the liquid lead-bismuth cooled reactors are also much safer:

TomD said at March 24, 2011 11:15 AM:

One thing unheeded in most arguments pro or against nuclear is:

Currently nuclear power covers a few percents of world's energy demand.
Known and prospected reserves of uranium energetically and economically worth exploiting will last for 70-100 years with today's rate of consumption with the reactor types currently in commercial use. Should energy consumption continue to grow and should the prospected electrification of all energy use happen, in order to actually become an important part of the future energy palette, rate of discovery of new uranium reserves should start to skyrocket exponentially very soon or new reactor types should become mature enough to be put in commercial use. Neither of these things seem to be happening as all other energy technologies show much more promise and proponents of "nuclear renaissance" are solely among ideological and political groups, not investors, researchers, technology developers etc.

Engineer-Poet said at March 24, 2011 1:04 PM:
"may result in radioactive contamination of water"

If its in the NY Times, it is probably a lie financed by George Soros....

If it's posted here under the name "Bruce", it's probably a lie, period.  Link on NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material).

It's a pity that we can't force this jerk to post a bond for each assertion, and collect it by debunking him.  It would either be profitable or get him to shut up.  Making the liars pay for others to produce the corrections would be the best of all possible outcomes.

th said at March 24, 2011 7:13 PM:

The battle on shale gas coincides with the expiration of the 3 month paterson ban back last december, New York will most likely shut this down for good, they have too many academic faculty lounge discussions up there to fret themselves nuts over the thought of texas style commerce in their neighborhood. The various state water control boards typically have a large contingent of pierre woodstock's in them who can arbitrarily deny just about anything they don't like. In Vermont, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant finally got a permit extension and the governor said nope. IBM has a huge wafer plant up there, they wrote to the governor about an already huge power bill and they were told them to supply their own power, this the mentality of the northeast.

Bruce said at March 24, 2011 11:20 PM:

"Documents filed by drillers with the state, though, show that in 2009 his facility was sent water from wells whose wastewater was laced with radium at 275 times the drinking-water standard and with other types of radiation at more than 780 times the standard."

I'll repeat that.

"the drinking-water standard"

The NY Times, is trying to confuse people by suggesting that water going INTO a waste treatment plant is not safe to drink.

Well ... DUH.

I do not plan to drink the feces and urine and every other bit of crap from the sewage system as it goes INTO a waste treatment facility. The water gets diluted, the sewage settles out, and no one dies.

Now, maybe the NY Times should do an expose of radium in wells that do supply drinking water, and had radium in them long before shale gas:

"Radium-224 is a potential health risk in drinking water but little is known about the activity of this short-lived, alpha-emitting radium isotope in ground water from rocks of the Piedmont. Thirteen wells sampled in 1986-88 for analysis of radium-226, radium-228, and gross-alpha- and gross-beta-particle activities were resampled in 1999 for the same constituents and radium-224. The wells were completed in lower Paleozoic quartzites, schists, and carbonate rocks and Mesozoic shales. Radium-226 and radium-228 had been detected in the thirteen wells at activities ranging from 0.5 and 1 picoCurie/liter (pCi/L) up to 12 and 160 pCi/L, respectively. Activities of radium-226 and radium-228 in the 1999 samples were similar to those in the 1986-88 samples for most wells. Radium-224 activities ranging from 0.4 to 265 pCi/L were measured in water from wells sampled in 1999."

The NY Times doesn't give a sh*t about radium in drinking water. Their extreme left wing agenda is to kill off shale gas.

Bruce said at March 25, 2011 11:47 AM:

"Currently, approximately 50 of Wisconsin's 1,300 community water systems exceed the drinking water standard for radium."

Do you think this made the NY Times front page?


"The levels of radium in the public water supplies of some Illinois communities slightly exceed the current MCL. A public water supply exceeding the standard is not permitted to extend water mains and is placed on a "restricted status" list. However, some communities have applied for and been granted a temporary variance from these regulations by the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) which adopts environmental regulations."

"Of the 59,000+ community water systems in the United States, at any time, approximately one to three percent exceed the drinking-water standard for radium."

I wonder if the last statement made the NY Times ...

Chris T said at March 28, 2011 9:17 AM:

Nuclear has been kaput in Germany for quite some time. Popular opinion has been pretty heavily against it and it was only a matter of time.

We'll see how fast opinions change when it becomes clear the dreams of wind and solar result in exorbitant costs for unstable power.

Ricardo Coelho said at March 29, 2011 10:43 AM:

I've written a thorough rebuttal of Monbiot's pieces supporting nuclear power:

Engineer-Poet said at April 5, 2011 4:57 AM:

Thorough?  I don't think that word means what you think it means.  Taking extreme estimates for consequences from an extreme event in what is arguably THE worst design of large NPP ever built is about as valid as making assumptions about the year-round climate of a city from its worst heat wave or cold snap.

Engineer-Poet said at April 5, 2011 9:26 PM:

Also, Monbiot himself takes apart the claim of 985,000 casualties that you cite as gospel.  His conclusion to that piece is worth repeating:

Failing to provide sources, refuting data with anecdote, cherry-picking studies, scorning the scientific consensus, invoking a cover-up to explain it: all this is horribly familiar. These are the habits of climate-change deniers, against which the green movement has struggled valiantly, calling science to its aid. It is distressing to discover that when the facts don't suit them, members of this movement resort to the follies they have denounced.

We have a duty to base our judgments on the best available information. This is not only because we owe it to other people to represent the issues fairly, but also because we owe it to ourselves not to squander our lives on fairytales. A great wrong has been done by this movement. We must put it right.
(Captcha is "fe666u".  Must be a devilish comment I'm making.)

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