The Wisdom of Deathbed Conversion

In 2005 it seemed that everything had changed. And then in 2007 it happened again. All of a sudden the only thing to expect was the unexpected. I’m talking of course about the weather, and the changes due to radiation entrapment. The climate seemed like it was dying.

Out of desperation, many prominent environmentalists converted to the religion of nuclear (fission) power between 2008-2011. Each year the news about the climate was (and still is) getting worse. Nuclear seemed to be the only way out. After the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year, some hedged and others doubled down. Given that the crisis there is ongoing and possibly worsening, maybe this is a good time to rethink those deathbed conversions.

There are two broad reasons why the conversion to nuclear doesn’t make sense:

  1. It assumed that nuclear is in fact a safer alternative for current and future energy production.
  2. It assumed that society can’t decrease demands.

I’m going to leave the second point alone for now.

To begin with let’s look at what British environmental writer George Monbiot said in 2009:

It’s true that my position has changed. As the likely effects of climate change have become clearer, nuclear power, by comparison, has come to seem less threatening.

But I have not, as many people have suggested, gone nuclear. Instead, my position is that I will no longer oppose nuclear power if four conditions are met:

1. Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account.
2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried.
3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay.
4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes.

None of them are insuperable.

Mark Lynas, author of the excellent book Six Degrees, I was disappointed to discover, took an even bolder stance in How nuclear power can save the planet:

I would take a stronger position myself: that increased use of nuclear (an outright competitor to coal as a deliverer of baseload power) is essential to combat climate change, but clearly there need to be some significant technical advances in nuclear fission if it is to become acceptable to many in the west.

Such “fourth-generation” nuclear power is still a dream, but potentially a much more realistic one than carbon capture and storage. Deployed entirely in tandem with renewables, fourth-generation nuclear could offer a complete decarbonisation of the world’s electricity supply – and on the sort of timetable that Dr Hansen and his fellow climatologists demand.

There are many other prominent environmentalists and scientists who’ve done the same calculation—we need nuclear or we’re doomed. Here’s one accounting of who’s changed their mind on nuclear in the last few years.

I’ve learned how inordinately complex nuclear power production is; few other human endeavors are of such complexity.

Consider a conventional coal-fired plant. Take some coal, burn it, boil some water, pipe the steam to run a turbine. Afterwards, add more coal.

Consider a conventional nuclear BWR. Take some carefully machined and enriched nuclear fuel, maintain the appropriate level of water moderation, start the reaction, maintain the appropriate level of control, boil some water but not too much water and don’t create too many bubbles, pipe the steam to run a turbine. Afterwards, open up the fuel assembly, move the fuel rods into an on-site spent fuel pool with appropriate water cooling for future transport to a reprocessing or long-term storage facility, with all of these steps done with protective gear.

I’m a fan of technologies that fail well. You can just walk away from most other power plants and not much will happen. Stop putting coal into a coal plant, and it will stop. Nuclear isn’t quite so simple. As we’re seeing with Fukushima, the dangerous plant is the one that wasn’t even operating at the time of the disaster—reactor number 4—simply due to the amount of waste that was held there.

A natural response by many nuclear proponents is that modern designs have a much greater margin of safety. No doubt that’s the case, though a little known fact is that utility companies regularly go to regulators and ask to do power uprates of their nuclear plants—that is, to run the plants above the original maximum power level, on the theory that the original designers built in a safety margin. Consider the huge number of uprates that the NRC has approved in the last decade. I’m reminded of the tradeoff between resilience and efficiency, and when money is involved people opt for short-term efficiency over long-term resilience.

Despite this, nuclear proponents might still be justified in standing their ground: risk is everywhere, and statistically nuclear is much safer than many other things in industrial society. That is, in ordinary times. And if there’s anything that’s clear about the combination of global climate change and peak oil and the many other challenges we face, it’s that we’re not in ordinary times—they are unprecedented in recorded history, and point to harder times ahead.

Specifically, three things strike me as the major reasons to avoid nuclear:

Limits to growth. In a (permanently?) declining global economy, the resources (mostly financial, though military resources are important for nuclear safety) to keep plants well maintained are going to be scarce. Nicole Foss said it well-–-that after studying nuclear safety in Eastern Europe she concluded that nuclear power is incompatible with hard times. It’s these hard times that invalidate assumptions about the safety procedures and other risk modeling, for example, that can cause unforeseen cascading accidents.

Waste storage. I think it is possible for us to store waste for the short term. It’s the longer term that is a bit more doubtful, and regardless of the duration it’s an expensive undertaking. The 2010 documentary Into Eternity on Finland’s waste storage plans reminded me of a few things: a) Finland is a small country, and yet the scale of the waste site is huge, b) planning for the 100 years it’ll take to finish the waste site is hard enough (will there be the money needed to complete it? how is it possible to plan for 100 years when we can’t plan beyond the next congressional election?) let alone the hundreds of thousands of years it needs to survive intact, and c) they’ve been working on this for a decade already, while no other country has even the beginnings of a solution. (The documentary was a bit sad: Finland has assembled a number of expert, sincere people trying to solve a problem that you sense they realize cannot be solved.)

Scale. Nuclear isn’t particularly cheap when you compare it to alternatives (though cost estimates vary wildly) and is difficult to scale up quickly. In my calculations on alternative energy several months back, I found David MacKay’s estimate that the peak rate of nuclear power plant construction ever achieved was 30GW of nameplate capacity per year, globally. At that rate we’d only build 0.6TW in 20 years, a drop in the bucket compared to the ~16TW of primary energy we consume globally today.

The combination of these factors, and the fact that it’s not a technology that fails well means that even barring a catastrophic failure, at some point the whole plant has to be decommissioned and many of its parts stored as waste, at great expense. The nuclear industry itself is old, and most nuclear engineers are nearing retirement, so a lot of institutional knowledge is about to be lost.

It’s for these reasons that I prefer solar thermal power (both for heat and for electricity) for baseload generation. A solar thermal tower with mirrors is about as low-tech as can be. There’s little risk of any sort of disaster—the entire system can be passive if it needs to be—and all the parts can be built using ubiquitous materials and simple technology. With heat storage—again, simple technology—solar thermal can provide stable baseload power in a way that most major renewables (other than hydroelectric) can’t.

Finally, stepping back for a moment, there’s the question of whether it was wise to advocate for a technology from a position of weakness—environmentalists felt they had been backed into a corner, and had to pick something—anything—to get us and the climate out alive. That’s not a frame of mind that leads to good decision making. Post-Fukushima, nuclear is off the table in many countries but the pattern that led to that choice is repeating with natural gas, and may keep repeating until we step back from the premise: that we can’t use less energy.

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Responses to “The Wisdom of Deathbed Conversion”

  1. “No one really knows the net yield of nuclear power because at present its use is subsidized by fossil fuels in a thousand ways that cannot be estimated until we try to run a nuclear system without them.

    Will nuclear power have a more concentrated value than the wood output of the solar system, or of coal, or of cheap oil from rich deposits? The new power plant seems to be more economical than the competing fossil plants as long as it is running on the accumulated storages of nuclear fuel and fuel prospecting done on fossil-fuel subsidy. Is nuclear power at this level of net power delivery possible in a culture that does not have the accompanying fossil fuels?” (Odum, 1971, p. 135)

    The question was rhetorical. Nuclear power is a fool’s game, and it is now net negative emergy by quite a bit. Consider Japan’s plight as a bellwether for other countries not so far into descent. Not only are the Japanese not receiving any energy from their 50+ NPPs, they now have to go to considerable effort to maintain power to the plants and protect stored waste that appears to be tucked away in a number of unsafe places (the latest debacle in Yamaguchi prefecture). Running nuclear power in a collapsing economy is like trying to raise yourself up by your own bootstraps. The problem is that the cost of failure is deadly, and because the entire industry is privatized and for-profit, we won’t store the wastes in casks until it is too late? The industry will go bankrupt and it will be the failing government’s problem, which will have many, many other crises to worry about simultaneously.

  2. Alexei McDonald April 22nd, 2012 - 5:45 am

    Did you notice that in the days after the tsunami, George Monbiot was claiming that the disaster only served to show how right he was about the safety of nuclear power?

  3. Last week, I was listening to NPR’s Marketplace (American Public Media) and heard that they had a new sponsor–the Nuclear Energy Institute. Tuesday night, there was a segment at the end of Marketplace about the BP oil spill and the damage to the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental piece was very uncharacteristic of them. I remembered the snippet about nuke sponsorship, and went back to find the sponsorship list for the show–404, nowhere to be found. One has to be a sleuth these days–it’s not what is said, but what is not said that is important?

    These days, consider that if you see an expose on BP and the Gulf, there’s a clean green nuke lobbyist lurking somewhere behind the piece? Or perhaps the sponsor is a solar or electric car maker (none of which are emergy efficient)? Or if you see an environmentalist touting electric cars, they’re probably pro nuke. Monbiot, Lovins et al. should do the math, and realize that you can’t keep on paving paradise. As resource availability gets tighter, we’re seeing the wealthy resource companies direct their not insignificant lobbying and PR efforts against each other. One needs the suspicion of Machiavelli these days to parse out the underlying motives and players? And many players are muzzled. The World Health Organization is not allowed to discuss health impacts of radiation. Nuclear engineers / researchers sign contracts that prevent them from talking. The nuke lobby appears to have captured the media, who are complicit in their silence. Lobbyists efforts are benefited greatly by their international scope and the nature of nuclear–you can’t detect it, and the population effects occur slowly and broadly, making it much harder to prove impacts.

    The nuke lobby’s finest success has been the media storm over climate change. Follow the money? “One section of the Lieberman-Warner bill says that “25 percent of all the funds deposited into a new climate change worker training fund shall be reserved for zero and low-emitting carbon energy that has a rated capacity of at least 750 megawatts of power,” notes Tyson Slocum, the research director of Public Citizen’s energy program. “That’s a huge threshold, so that’s going to exclude wind and solar right off the bat. . . . The only thing that could possibly meet that target would be nuclear power.” Similar language in another section of the bill effectively reserves another half a trillion dollars for the nuclear industry, according to Slocum.”

    There have been several really good pieces on environmentalism lately (Paul Kingsnorth’s in Orion was really good). Environmentalists take the view that we can wall off a piece of Nature in a preserve somewhere and then go on with our consumption, perhaps even driving a shiny new Prius, so that we are not discommoded. Environmentalists are just as guilty as the resource extractors in not being able to view the ecological big picture, and are just as polarized in their views. I noticed that Odum’s books were categorized at Amazon as “environmentalism” books–if HT had a grave, he’d be rolling in it. He considered the term an epithet. Happy earth day.

  4. Mary -

    Well I’m late to the party recognizing that, then! Amazing that H.T. made that observation back in 1971, back when there was probably quite a bit of hype about nuclear power and there had yet to be a major disaster to chasten the industry.

    Your observation about the net energy of nuclear is one I hadn’t even considered as a downside, but it’s a great point. The usually claimed positive EROEI for nuclear requires that the plants suffer no accidents and are used for ~40 years. Even a minor accident can cost a lot of money and there goes the energy return. (I think the operators of San Onofre are learning this the hard way right now.)

  5. Alexei -

    I hadn’t seen that; it’s very disappointing. His reasoning makes sense only if one looks on a short time-scale:

    1. Radiation exposure can cause effects years or decades later, so a final tally will take place long after the Fukushima plants are gone.
    2. The net energy of nuclear in such circumstances, as Mary observed, can end up being very negative even if it looks good at first.
    3. The situation at Fukushima isn’t even over today—he called that one a bit early. My understanding is that they are currently one major aftershock away from having to evacuate Tokyo (because if reactor building 4 collapses—and it’s already damaged—its fuel pool will probably heat up and catch fire). Such an event probably would have immediate health impacts in a way that he’s saying it hasn’t.

    Of course this comes back to the core premise: that we can’t use less energy.

  6. Mary -

    Great comment. I hadn’t thought too much about how the nuclear industry likes anti-oil reports, but that makes sense. It does seem everyone understands that there’s a fixed and soon to be shrinking pie and they all want to grab their share of it even if it puts them at odds with their heretofore allies.

    I’d forgotten it’s Earth day; happy Earth day too. Though I’m not sure I like the idea of designating one day for the Earth, though Earth day probably was a formative experience for me as a kid (sometime in the late ’80s my school took a walking field trip to a local Earth day event, where I got a copy of the now classic “50 simple things” book, and had a lot of seeds planted).

  7. “Of course this comes back to the core premise: that we can’t use less energy.”

    Aayup. That’s the core premise. Far be it from people like us to take the next step and ask, “What are people DOING with the energy they are burning up?” In most cases (especially the auto), we can safely say that most of the things people are doing just don’t need to be done (in the context of being useful to the future).

  8. Auntiegrav -

    I hope that social pressure begins to have an effect on energy use in the near future. (Cost will certainly play a role as well, as it already is.)