Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuke power: still too safe, still too expensive, and no one's changed their mind

Stoat refers to the latest go-around on nukes following the catastrophe in Japan (also here). I don't think people are changing their minds on the overall issue, and who am I to buck that trend?

While I find it pretty murky to figure out exactly what's happening in Japan, it seems that the radiation released is still much less than Chernobyl. Maybe the radiation could get as bad as Chernobyl, maybe not, but it definitely won't result in as many lives lost. Compare that to the million people annually who die from from fine particle emissions, in large part from fossil fuels, and it's no contest. Meanwhile, Germany and China partially suspend their nuclear programs while their coal plants chug away, actions that don't help safety unless they later plan to make up for lost time.

So I'll stand by what I wrote in 2005, that nuclear power is too safe relative to fossil fuel competitors. I suppose you could argue it's worthwhile to make the worst 10% safer while making new plants less safe than otherwise planned, but that wouldn't change the analysis. I also suppose it's less safe than the industrial accidents from renewable power (don't really know the answer to that), but that's not the binary choice we have in our current system.

I tried to figure out what could change my mind on safety, and it would have to be getting a lot of Chernobyls. However, nuclear power could be ruled out with only a few Chernobyls because they have the effect of making significant land areas uninhabitable, an adverse economic effect. Nuclear power is just too expensive to be more than a minor contributor to climate solutions, unless we go along with the conservative push for giant subsidies for nukes. Maybe we need to, but that doesn't make it optimal.

One other point: Matt notices that nuclear power is only safe due to governmental regulation, and still conservatives love it.

And another: this BBC article points to a proposal to put a nuclear waste depository in the already-uninhabitable Chernobyl area. It doesn't make much sense in the thousands of years that we'd theoretically need to store it, but it does make sense for the actual century or two that's needed, and afterwards a much more advanced technological society can figure out a better solution.


  1. J Bowers2:18 AM

    "I also suppose it's less safe than the industrial accidents from renewable power (don't really know the answer to that),"

    One way to look at it is in terms of deaths per terrawatt hour. The chart here helps to put that into perspective, with fossil fuel energy looking like it's as safe to produce as.... ummm... working in a coal mine.

  2. Thanks for the link. Michael Shellenberger made use of the old data to claim nukes are safer than renewables.

    Nukes also have the potential to drastically worsen their safety ratio, if a rapid meltdown occurs in an urban location. Still, I doubt that would even bring nuclear close to fossil fuels, unless that becomes an annual event.

    The main lurking danger of a rare, catastrophic event is in significantly increasing the economic cost of nuclear power, not in making it unsafe.

  3. J Bowers12:20 PM

    I personally think it's a choice of two evils, but the main problem with nuclear seems to be cutting corners; coal mining industry attitudes do not translate well to nukes. The bean counters and top management should be legally required to work in a plant - if you want to profit from it, you have to take a personal stake in the risks that you're supposed to manage. Mandatory examinations created by Nassim Taleb wouldn't go amiss, either ;)

    The ancient, near obsolete, and seemingly poorly caretakered Fukushima reactors weathered the worst Nature could throw at them outside of a direct meteorite hit. Yes, I'd much rather have wind, hydro, geo and solar, but if the aim is to reduce carbon emissions quickly then nuclear could fill a gap in the short term. The idea of economically cheap fossil fuel is an outrageous myth. A gallon of gasoline costs around at least $11 in the US, and coal's hidden costs are up to $345 billion per annum to the US taxpayers alone; cleanup and health costs not covered by industry.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.