Tag Archives: nuclear power

The Energy Transition and the Question of Perfection

I just read an interesting piece on the widely influential VOX, by David Roberts, called “A beginner’s guide to the debate over 100% renewable energy.” It is worth a read, but I have some problems with it, and felt compelled to rant. No offense intended to David Roberts, but I run into certain malconstructed arguments so often that I feel compelled to promote a more careful thinking out of them, or at least, how they are presented. Roberts’ argument is not malconstructed, but the assumptions leading up to his key points include falsehoods.

I’m not going to explicitly disagree with the various elements of the solutions part of this article (the last parts). But the run-up to that discussion, in my opinion, reifies and supports a number of falsehoods, mainly the dramatic (and untrue) dichotomy between the perfect and wonderful large-plant mostly coal and petroleum sources of energy on one hand with alternatives fraught with All The Problems on the other. Since this VOX piece is a “beginner’s guide” I would hope we can stick a little more nuance into beginner’s thinking.

I choose to Fisk. Thusly:

“Doing that — using electricity to get around, heat our buildings, and run our factories — will increase demand for power. “

It decreases the demand for power, overall. Internal combustion engines are inefficient compared to electric, to such a degree that burning huge amounts of petroleum or coal in one place to ultimately power electric vehicles in a reasonable size region is more efficient than distributing burnable material to all those vehicles to run them. Electrification is inherently more efficient and lower maintenance.

“That means the electricity grid will have to get bigger,”

Our grid, in the US and generally, in the west, is fully embiggened. Globally, maybe. That depends on if a “big grid” is the best way to deliver power everywhere. It probably isn’t.

[The grid must become] “more sophisticated, more efficient, and more reliable — while it is decarbonizing. ”

This contrasts the improvement of the grid with decarbonizing as though they were opposites, but for most of the expected improvements of the grid, improvements of the grid and decarbonizing are the same actions. They are not in opposition to each other.

“On the other side are those who say that the primary goal should be zero carbon, not 100 percent renewables. They say that, in addition to wind, solar, and the rest of the technologies beloved by climate hawks, we’re also going to need a substantial amount of nuclear power and fossil fuel power with CCS.”

This is a false dichotomy in my opinion. There is uncertainty here, of course. But let’s try this. Let’s try decarbonizing 50% of our current power without nuclear. At that point we will know whether or not to invest trillions into an unpopular solution (and nuclear is unpopular). If we need to, we’ll do it. If we don’t, we won’t. Maybe something in between. But worrying about this now, and using uncertainty to argue one way or another, is a waste of conversational energy.

“(If you shrug and say, “it’s too early to know,” you’re correct, but you’re no fun to dispute with.)”

LOL. But no. Rather, I’m thinking that it is too early to know and, in contrast, you are hiding a pro-nuclear argument in a blanket of uncertainty! Maybe you are not, but this is what such arguments almost always look like. Beware the nuclear argument wearing sheep’s clothing. A greenish tinged sheep, yes, but still a sheep.

“The sun is not always shining; the wind is not always blowing.”

Another falsehood. Technically the sun is not always shining on us, true, but as sure as the Earth is spinning, the wind is always blowing. People who say this have never been to the Dakotas.

It does vary in intensity and by region. So does nuclear, by the way. Nuclear plants have to be shut down or slowed down regularly for refueling. When severe storms threaten, nuclear plants are often shut down, and that is not on a schedule. When any big power plant suffers a catastrophe there is a long term and catastrophic break in the grid, as compared to a cloudy day, or even, a broken windmill.

The sun is up during the day, and in may places and for many times, generally everywhere, the demand for power is greater during the day.

Overall, this is a falsehood because it attributes perfection to the traditional sources, especially to Nuclear, and great imperfection to the non-Carbon and non-Nuclear alternatives. That distinction is not nearly as clear and complete as generally stated.

“The fact that they are variable means that they are not dispatchable — the folks operating the power grid cannot turn them on and off as needed.”

Another falsehood. First, you can’t turn a major traditional power plant on or off as needed. Indeed, there are already major storage technologies and variation methodologies at work. There are high demand industries that are asked to increase or decrease their use, on the fly, to meet production variation on large grids. There are pumped storage systems. Etc. The fact is that there is variation and unpredictability in the current big-plant system, it is a problem, and it is a problem that has been quietly addressed. Quietly to the extent that people making comparisons between traditional big-plant electricity and clean energy systems often don’t even know about it.

“As VRE capacity increases, grid operators increasingly have to deal with large spikes in power (say, on a sunny, windy day), sometimes well above 100 percent of demand. “

Yes indeed, and this is the challenge being addressed as we speak. Enlarging grid balancing systems, increasing storage, developing tunable high energy industries, and so on. This is the challenge, it is being met as we speak.

“They also have to deal with large dips in VRE. It happens every day when the sun sets, but variations in VRE supply can also take place over weekly, monthly, seasonal, and even decadal time frames.”

Yes indeed, and this is the challenge being addressed as we speak. Enlarging grid balancing systems, increasing storage, developing tunable high energy industries, and so on. This is the challenge, it is being met as we speak.

“And finally, grid operators have to deal with rapid ramps, i.e., VRE going from producing almost no energy to producing a ton, or vice versa, over a short period of time. That requires rapid, flexible short-term resources that can ramp up or down in response.”

Yes indeed, and this is the challenge being addressed as we speak. Enlarging grid balancing systems, increasing storage, developing tunable high energy industries, and so on. This is the challenge, it is being met as we speak.

The article mentions the economic problems. I don’t see those as difficult to solve but they are important, but I’ve got no comments on that at the moment. Read the article.

“The last 10 to 20 percent of decarbonization is the hardest”

Absolutely. And, know what? The first 25% will be the easiest. Do that now, and we’ll know a LOT more about the next 25% and maybe it won’t seem so hard after all. Maybe a major technological solution will come along before we get to that last 10%, maybe society will change enough that people will simply agree to having occasional reductions in energy availability. But certainly, the greatest difficulty and uncertainty is linked to that last 10%.

Our goal should be to have that problem soon.

“A great deal can be accomplished just by substituting natural gas combined cycle power plants for coal plants.”

Yes, if by “a great deal” you mean the release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Before extolling the virtues of methane, do check into it further. I once thought methane as a bridge was a good idea too, until I learned about what it involves, about leaking methane, etc. No, not really a good idea for the most part.

“Natural gas is cleaner than coal (by roughly half, depending on how you measure methane leakage), but it’s still a fossil fuel.”

My impression is that every time we learn something new about leakage, it is that the leakage is worse than we previously thought.

“If you build out a bunch of natural gas plants to get to 60 percent, then you’re stuck shutting them down to get past 60 percent.”

Well put.

Do read the article, but please, keep in mind that it is unfair (in the context of an argument) to attribute undue perfection to one option while emphasizing uncertain problems with the other. We need to forge ahead into that uncertainty and speed up this whole process. Everybody get to work on this please!

The Age of Radiance

The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era by Craig Nelson (author of Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon) is a well done history of the atomic age. If you are a bit squeamish (justifiably I’m sure) about the nuclear industry or nuclear stuff generally you’ll find Nelson’s dismissal of your concerns as the product of a public relations fail on the part of the nuclear industry to be patronizing and annoying, but there isn’t too much of that in the book, and he’s partly right; most fears people have about nuclear energy are not especially accurate, but then again, that applies to all fears all the time, it seems. Nuclear power does not have as much of a power to make people stupid as nuclear power advocates suggest. But I digress…

…. this is a biography of an important age in our history, one that we are currently leaving but will still be with us for hundreds of thousands of years, seeping into the groundwater. It is a fascinating story. I mean, seriously, the whole idea of nuclear physics is fascinating. Everything we knew about everything prior to the discoveries related to the cracking of the atom have two important characteristics: 1) almost off of that applies perfectly to the world around us (basic chemistry and Newtonian physics) and 2) it is all wrong. The opening days of the nuclear age involved that remarkable discovery. There was research, radiation, x-rays, then bombs and power generation. The cold war, terrorism, accidents. Nelson’s book is, really, just full of interesting stories.

Removing the #Fukushima Spent Fuel Rods. Or not.

TEPCO was going to start removing the fuel rods from the less-damaged reactor building Numnber 4 over the next few days. Today, it was announced that damage to the fuel rod assemblies, some or most of which predated the tsunami and earthquake, this could not be done. There is now uncertainty as to what is going to happen.

Here is a video by Fairewinds about this operation, which I believe was made before TEPCO decided to not continue with the removal at this time:

As you can see, there are several possible problems. Most of these problems are not related to the reasons TEPCO has given to halt the operation at this time; they are additional .

Fukushima Update

Patrick J. Kiger at National Geographic News has an excellent summary of the current situation at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The plant continues to leak radioactive material into the sea, though at a rate much lower than the massive release that happened at the time of the accident. Strontium-90 (Half-life 28.79 years) has increased in proportion over various Cesium isotopes. This is a concern because while Cesium has the potential to enter the food supply in fish that pick it up, Strontium enters the food supply in a different way. In theory Cesium enters tissues and leaves tissues, and doesn’t accumulate over time. (I quickly add that there is evidence of Cesium accumulation in the fish food chain, so that may not be entirely true; certainly, tough, Cesium does not accumulate in large amounts). Strontium, on the other hand, substitutes for minerals in bone, and thus accumulated as a fish ages. Taking fish from contaminated waters for human consumption has mostly been banned since the accident (there are a few species of marine organism that have stopped showing detectable levels of radioactive isotopes, so they are now being caught).

The overall expected health risks of the Fukushima disaster overall and continued health risks because of the ongoing leakage are hard to estimate. There is almost certainly an elevated cancer risk for people living in the area, though the extent of this is unknown. Concerns that we see around the Internet that dangerous levels of radiation are reaching the US are incorrect.

Having said that, I think people often evaluate the significance of the Fukushima disaster incorrectly, for political reasons. Those who want to claim that nuclear power (including existing old-generation nuclear plants) is just honkey-dory seem to do so by feeding off of anti-nuke misconceptions and irrational fears about radiation. Yes, people do get it wrong; the average person has no clue what risks radioactive materials or radiation pose. For this reason, it is easy to creates straw men and then disprove them. The fact that the region around Fukushima is not littered with skeletons of people who were zapped into oblivion by the Fukushima multiple meltdowns, or that all babies in Japan are born with only one head and ten fingers, does not mean that nothing happened there. The fact is that you can’t go near this power plant without taking a serious health risk, and there is a moderate but real health risk because of the prior large scale dispersal of radioactive material and the ongoing lower level but still important outpouring (literally) of radioisotopes.

If we were to propose the construction of 22 nuclear power plants and noted that over a 30 year period one of them would suffer multiple meltdowns, spew enormous amounts of nuclear icky stuff into the air and sea, continued to spread contaminated water into the sea and groundwater for years after at a lower rate, create a very expensive problem that would last for decades and create a deadly no-entry zone filled with millions and millions of gallons of radioactive water and piles of nuclear material in the disabled reactors and spent fuel pools that could not be cleaned up for decades in a zone susceptible to serious earthquakes and tsunamis … the designers of that system might well be asked to go back to the drawing board or seek other alternatives. (Japan has about 22 plants operated over about 30 years, give or take.)

In fact, they were. They were asked to not do what they did, but those who opposed nuclear plants in Japan. The specific reasoning of the anti-nuclear activists and others may have included faulty logic and bad information about nuclear power, but on the list of potential problems was the possibility that what actually happened would happen. They were right. And they were not “stopped clock” right. They were right because they saw a real danger that really existed.

We probably have to build new nuclear power plants. Burning fossil fuels at the rate we are burning them will cause disasters that will make us forget bout our nuclear woes. But it is not true that the nuclear power industry is ready to step in and build significantly safer plants now, and it is not true that “alternative” (a term we should stop using!) energy solutions such as geothermal, solar, wind, and so on deployed on a smart grid with significant enhancements of efficiency at both production and use ends of the grid comprises a secondary solution.

Anyway, I gave only a short summary of what Kiger outlines in his excellent piece. Go now and read: Fukushima’s Radioactive Water Leak: What You Should Know

James Hansen on Nuclear Power

James Hansen, the famous climate scientist and author of Storms of my Grandchildren, talks about the possible role of nuclear power in addressing climate change, and in particular, reducing the release of fossil carbon into the atmosphere.

I think he is far to pessimistic on the use of solar and wind energy than he needs to be and notice that he, and no one else ever, seems to mention geothermal, which could reduce our release of carbon by double digit percentages using existing technology in a few years. Having said that, there is probably no way to solve our energy problem without implementing next generation nuclear power to some degree.

Photo Credit: u? via Compfight cc

Fukushima Update: Radioactive Fish, Conflicts of Interest, and Filtered Vents

On March 11th, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant complex suffered damage from an earthquake and ensuing tsunami that caused multiple nuclear reactor core meltdowns and melt-throughs, explosions, and major releases of radioactive material into the air and the sea. In addition to the reactor meltdowns and melt-throughs spent fuel storage tanks were also damaged and probably contributed to the release. It took about a year for the plant to reach a condition that was stable enough that we stopped checking it every day to see if new bad things were happening. Heroic efforts were implemented by the utility and the workers, but in the end, very little that was done aside from the initial flooding of the reactors with sea water really had much effect. Basically, the plant just cooled down and stopped being as dangerous because the nuclear material in the plant escaped into the environment or just settled down to a less reactive level over time.

A handful of news items have come up recently mainly pertaining to contamination and other issues, so we thought an update was in order.

Conflicts of Interest Involving Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Agency and Other Stakeholders

There have been a number of points where it looked like conflicts of interest between the regulators and the regulatees (as it were), or at least the appearance thereof, were in effect since the time of this disaster. It is happening again. Continue reading Fukushima Update: Radioactive Fish, Conflicts of Interest, and Filtered Vents

The predictability of and variation in wind energy

Wind power is like Ginger Rogers. You know what I mean. It isn’t judged by the same standards as other kinds of electricity generation.

I’m speaking specifically of the reliability of, or variation in, wind over time. Many people live in places where they personally experience highly variable wind, or at least, think they do, so it is easy to assume that wind generators would be sometimes running on full, sometimes standing still, in a more or less random and unpredictable way, but this is not necessarily true. There are regions where wind is much more consistent than people might imagine, though of course it is always somewhat variable. In fact, a bigger problem with wind may be not so much the variation, but the fact that in some regions it is out of sync with energy demands. In some temperate zones, wind may be weak during the day but stronger at night when electricity demands are low (but this can vary from region to region, and seasonally; there are places where winds tend to come up during the day and calm down at night)
Continue reading The predictability of and variation in wind energy

Japan Nuclear Disaster Update # 40: Fukushima Plant Still Producing Energy! (In a bad way)

The Fukushima nuclear power plant was opened to journalists for the first time; See below for numerous links to related stories.

There appears to be very high levels of radiation at Fukushima plant reactor #3, and at either reactors 1 and 3, or both, nuclear fission may have been occurring in the melted down remains. Ideally, once a plant is turned off, i.e., control rods inserted etc. etc., the state of “criticality” is stopped and there is no more fission, or at least, only a small background level. But, if a nuclear power plant’s core melts down, nuclear material can re-accumulate in some uncontrolled manner in the wreckage beneath the plant or in lower areas of a reactor containment vessel, and critical mass can be re-attained. This apparently has been detected over the last few weeks at Fukushima. This is evident from the presence of Xenon-135, a product of nuclear fission with a half life of just over 9 hours.

However, TEPCO appears to be making adjustments to the definition of the term “criticality” so this problem is expected to go away soon. (You will remember that some time ago when it became apparent that TEPCO would be unable to effect a true “cold shutdown” of the melted down reactors, the definition of “cold shutdown” was changed. Now, there is discussion of the meaning of the term “criticality.”) Also, TEPCO reassures us that the detection of the products of “spontaneous fission” is not really a new phenomenon. Rather, they just started to be able to detect this accidental nuclear process. It has presumably been going on all along (which could go a long way to explaining why it has been impossible to obtain a “cold shutdown” of the reactors without having to resort to redefining “cold”).

Of increasing concern is the amount of evidence that people, including some school children, nuclear plant workers, and others have been found to have internal exposure, meaning particles of nuclear material were breathed in or ingested. In a possibly related move, the upper limits of contamination for food is being lowered significantly. One rescue worker who was found to have been internally exposed has died and some are suggesting that there is a link.

One report indicates that about 79 percent of the fallout from Fukushima ended up in the ocean, 19% has been deposited on the land in Japan, about 2% on other land surfaces mainly in Asia and North America. The report indicates that about twice as much Cesium 137 was released at Fukushima than had bee previously reported. Another report indicates that measurable amounts of Iodine-131 have been found in several European countries, of uncertain origin.

Speaking of contamination, have a look at this discussion of bird brains and radiation at Chernobyl.

Robotic exoskeletons are being developed to help the workers work harder – there are ~3,000 people working there every day. It is interesting to observe over these months since the meltdowns how many procedures and technologies are being invented and deployed for the very first time, as though the nuclear power industry actually, really, truly believed that nothing could ever go wrong. Had the possibility of a major disaster such as this been considered earlier, not only would TEPCO and others have been more prepared, but also, the costs may have been manged better.

Speaking of cost, there is talk of recalculating the cost of nuclear energy – internalizing waste costs and accident costs when planning plants. Interesting idea, and utterly surprising that this has never occurred to anyone before. It turns out that nuclear energy is fairly expensive. Floridians are upset over two or three billion dollars of state funds being used to upgrade a nuclear power plant plant; TEPCO has asked for and will get a trillion yen. It adds up.

The Japanese Genkai reactor has restarted, and this is the first restart of a nuke plant shut down for technical problems in Japan since the massive Fukushima meltdown. The technical problem was caused by a screw-up that was, in turn, caused by using a faulty operation manual. Perhaps the instructions were written originally in English and translated poorly into Japanese. In any event, it is telling that a) Nuclear industry lies and cheats to get a major plant that should not have been built constructed where it should not be; b) plant melts down causing worst nuclear power disaster ever; c) Other plants start to resume operations d) within weeks, another plant is shut down because of a bad photocopy job in a manual.

Oh yes, of course we can trust the Nuclear Power Industry to get it right.

NHK asked plant operators if they’d been cyber attacked and many said yes, but that they had not been compromised. And of course, the would never lie. Later it was reported that sensitive data was leaked through these attacks, including design plans, etc.

And now, it is time for Ana’s Feed of all the latest Fukushima and other Nuclear Power related news:

Continue reading Japan Nuclear Disaster Update # 40: Fukushima Plant Still Producing Energy! (In a bad way)

Japan Nuclear Disaster: Update # 36: Sushi Recommendations

One of the interesting items we have this week is a study by Greenpeace in which various organisms from the sea near Fukushima were sampled for radioactive isotopes. Let’s take a closer look.

The data in the table provided (see the first item in Ana’s feed for the link) show the amount of radiation (radioactive decay) by isotope type per kilogram of plant or animal tissue from various samples. On the higher end is a fish with 357 bq/kg of radiation and some seaweed with 190 bk/kg.

What does this mean? Hard to say. I can tell you this: A normal human has about 4,000 or more bq (in total for the human) of radiation primarily from the most common source of radiation (radioactive potassium) So if Greenpeace had sampled a typical human not from a radioactive region they would get a result of about 4,000 bq total. Say a human weighs 70 kilos. That means the human being sampled would yield about 50 bk/kg. So the radioactive fish is about 7 times more radioactive than a human, and the plant almost 4 times as radioactive. A concern here would be where on the food chain one is, if radioactive isotopes are being concentrated through trophic activity (things eating things). Also, a concern would be how long this radioactive stuff will be radioactive.

Regarding the second question first, roughly half the radioactive material found in the Greenpeace samples has a half life of just over 2 years, but the rest has a half life of 30 years. Regarding trophic level, note that among the less radioactive samples both fish and seaweed have similar amounts, but among the more radioactive samples, it is the fish (which are trophically higher than plants) that have more, which simply indicates that the samples could be revealing things about a real biological system (subject to revision). In other words, were the reverse true, I’d be scratching my head and not because of dandruff.

The most radioactive fish is a Rockfish, which is an opportunistic carnivore often feeding on other things that eat things and sometimes things that eat things that eat things, and they are probably relatively long lived. In other words, rockfish are high on the food chain and would be expected to concentrate radioactive isotopes that are in the environment. The next highest fish in terms of contamination is the halibut, which is also a carnivore, but eating more crustaceans and probably not as high on the food chain. A kind of cod, with a similar diet to halibut is next. The lowest in terms of radiation is a kind of mackerel, which probably eats pelagic crustaceans (shrimpy things that float around near the surface) which in turn eat plankton. This would be the lowest on the food chain of the sampled fish, but also the highest in the water column. So, it might be hard to tell the difference here between how high something is on the food chain and how high (top feeder) vs low (bottom feeder) the fish is in the water column. My sushi recommendations? Surface feeding low-torphic level short lived fish. From the Atlantic Ocean.

None of these samples were particularly close to the power plant, some were purchased from markets some taken directly from the sea. The plume of radiation from the plant is rather large.


Scan Ana’s feed for a lot more on contamination issues.

And as these data become available we also see bans on Japanese produce being lifted for US military commissaries. The effects of food bans are being explored, and radioactive contamination is being found in novel places such as industrial waste.

News regarding nuclear plant incidents, construction patterns, and potentials in the US, as well as further conversations about nuclear safety, are all over Ana’s feed. And it’s OK, the IAEA has a plant to make reactors safe. They also have this barn door they intend to close. The plan will be voluntary, of course.

Meanwhile at the reactors, water has been used to cool them down to the point where the hot spots are only barely boiling and bubbling. In other words, we are still in a state where Step One control over the situation has not yet been achieved, even though it was declared achieved weeks ago. It is now expected that cooling below boiling levels may be achieved by some time next year.

It does appear that rainwater is passing more or less feely into the lower levels of the nuclear power plant where it interacts with uncontrolled globs of nuclear material, then presumably disappears from the planet all on its own. Or perhaps it flows into the nearby sea. They’re still working on that.

I want to take a moment to express my very sincere thanks to Analiese Miller for the tremendous work she does in putting together this feed. I know that she’s been very busy with other things over the last few weeks and that this has been an extra burden on her. You are awesome, Ana.

Continue reading Japan Nuclear Disaster: Update # 36: Sushi Recommendations