Keep the lights on

Posted in Energy, Society at 20:20 by RjZ

“They’d have over 300 engineers where here you only see maybe 30,” said the forty plus year veteran of the power industry comparing a nuclear power plant to the coal-fired plant I was visiting. I asked him why there are so many. Isn’t the plant automated much like this one I wanted to know? “To fill out all the forms,” he answered. He felt that all the regulations were a big part of why we don’t have more nuclear power. I can’t speak to how many bureaucratic forms engineers were filling out but I can see why many of them might be necessary.

Nuclear power isn’t without risk to be sure, but neither is coal, oil, or as environmentalists recently complained [more here], wind power. Somehow public misinformation about the dangers of nuclear power, perhaps combined with overwhelming legislation has doomed this relatively clean energy source in the U.S.

Here are some things most of us don’t think about when we consider our choices for power. Oil is used to generate electricity. Well, it was used to generate electricity when it was less than $30 a barrel. Burning oil to turn generators produces relatively little pollution (surprisingly!) but it does release plenty of green house gases. Environmental regulations in the U.S. drove many utilities to build new power plants that could burn oil and, in a pinch, coal and the majority of these are either idle or burning coal exclusively right now because oil is just too expensive. The story for natural gas is about the same.

The U.S. has been described as the Saudi Arabia of coal. It’s true. We have tons of the stuff, more than any other nation and while it’s frequently high in sulfur (which produces smog causing pollutants such as SOx) equipment exists to minimize this problem. The U.S. consumed over a billion short tons of coal in 2003. A single, average sized, coal fired power plant consumes about one train load of coal per day. We’ve all waited for a typical 105 car coal train to cross in front of us on the road. One whole train goes into a power plant full and leaves empty every single day! All that coal is burnt up each day and turned into two things: ash and CO2. Ash is frequently used in cement production or, as often as not, simply dumped near the coal plant. CO2 meanwhile is released into the atmosphere. Coal is responsible for 53% of the U.S. 3.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. and for about 4.4 billion pounds of CO2 will be released into the air for 2005. (More, you say, than we even consumed in coal? different years. See this link for loads of info.)

Hydro-electric can hardly be considered environmentally friendly these days when we consider the damage to the landscape, destroyed fisheries and rivers that many dams of caused. Fact is, there aren’t really many more places for us to dam up these days and while Lake Powell is a load of fun for many people it was also an environmental disaster for the area.

Renewables? I mentioned wind-power above but there’s also geo-thermal, wave power and solar power. Currently renewable make up less than 1% of the U.S. power consumption. Probably the biggest reason for this is that it’s expensive! According to a Stirling Energy Systems “Photovoltaic technology is generally not abundant enough or cost-effective enough to meet any large scale demands.” Other solar energy is in the 10¢ per KW range. Coal meanwhile is in the 2 – 5¢ range. Of course we’re not paying for the environmental impact of coal–yet!

I used to drive by San Onofre nuclear power plant in southern California quite frequently. The power plant has been in operation for 38 years but they do not have an agreement to transport nuclear waste off site. Where do they put it? Essentially in the basement. It’s a special basement, surrounded by 2 inches of stainless steel and several feet of reinforced concrete, but it’s still the basement. 38 years and they have all of their waste on site. How is this possible? Because nuclear power plants produce about 1 cubic foot of waste per year. Oh, it’s nasty stuff, no doubt about it, but there just isn’t very much of it. The plant itself is hardened so that a 747 could fly right into it without damaging it. (You can question that if you want, but it was designed with this in mind at least.)

A long list of accidents at nuclear power plants would be dwarfed by the same listing at coal-plants but virtually none of these released nuclear material into the broader environment. The worst nuclear accident in the U.S. was three-mile island. This human-error was contained but that part of the plant was destroyed. Meanwhile, coal-fired power plants release literally billions of tons of CO2 into the environment (and a sizable amount of nuclear isotopes as well just because they’re naturally occurring in the coal) ever year.

The U.S. is 18th in nuclear power generation. With all this power being generated world-wide by nuclear power (16% of the world’s power) you’d think we’d be hearing about accidents every day.

Nuclear power has risks and I don’t need to write a treatise on this subject here. But other power sources are simply too expensive (today) or obviously risky to our environment and yet we continue to use them.

Our choice is clear. We must continue to invest in alternative energy sources and carefully consider their advantages and disadvantages before assuming we have the end-all solution. In the mean time we should reconsider nuclear power in the U.S. and start investing new plants now. Well, that’s not true, we do have another choice–turn off the lights and move back into caves.


  1. Penelope said,

    November 20, 2005 at 12:01

    I’m glad you finally blogged about energy, since you know so much about it. Those of us who live close by have learned a lot about coal-powered plants and energy in general from you. And I’ll have you know that, even though I did just drive my car all the way to California (I live in Boulder, Colorado), up and down the coast, and back, I felt quite guilty about my effect on the environment.

    I’m not convinced that nuclear power is the solution to the world’s energy problems. It’s true that its impact on the environment is comparatively wonderfully small when everything goes right, and accidents rarely happen, but when an accident does happen at a nuclear plant, it really, really, sucks. Didn’t you tell me that you once lived near an area nastily affected by the Chernobyl meltdown? (And no, dear readers, Ron has never lived in the Soviet Union.)

    Still, you made the most important point about energy production: There is something that sucks a lot about every form of energy production we have. I was heartbroken to learn that even wind power has a huge downside. (I’d heard before you told me that wind turbines kill birdies, but I’m still sad. Sniff!) Sigh. It’s a matter of choosing the method or combination of methods that suck least.

    Of course, energy conservation would go a long way towards a better world, but I don’t see it happening. Even I can’t resist the urge to go on a road trip when the world is running out of oil, and gas is $3 a gallon. Our culture at large is not likely to drive less and limit our time sitting under flourescent lights, listening to the stereo and TV at the same time, and blogging on our computers. We’ll just have to choose the lesser of a whole lot of evils, and try to invent even lesser evils as we go. Informative folks like you can help us do that. Thanks for sharing what you know.

  2. pat said,

    November 21, 2005 at 18:21

    On September 5 of this year, the UN and IAEA released a report on the cumulative casualties of Chernobyl over the last 20 years:


    They conclude that “fewer than 50 deaths” were caused by radiation exposure from the Chernobyl accident. This counts deaths from cancer up to 2004. It was an awful accident, but the yearly death rate from industrial accidents from mining, transporting and burning a billion tons of coal must be much higher.

    As much as we might despair over our consumption of energy, all of modern civilization (not just Western) is built on it. If you plot a country’s per-capita GDP against that country’s per-capita energy consumption, it’s a straight line from the poorest countries that use almost no energy to the richest countries that use the most energy. On this planet, you can’t have prosperity without consuming a lot of energy.

  3. tim rohrer said,

    November 23, 2005 at 11:07

    I would disagree vehemently with Ron’s suggestion that nuclear power is worth a second look, having grown up here in Boulder near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant and having been evacuated in grade school due to an accident there.

    The problems with current nuclear power generation are pretty intractable–most notably the waste problem, which Ron brushes over as “pretty nasty stuff.” It is in fact the longest lasting and most toxic form of waste we humans have managed to create, so much so that there is no acceptable way to dispose of it. I have in my library a very strange publication from the US government’s Sandia National Laborarories attempt to think through the long-term future of nuclear waste management. They literally hired science-fiction writers to try to imagine the future 10000 years out–a fraction of the amount of time that nuclear waste will remain posionous. It is one of the most absurd–and most frightening–volumes I have ever read. (I was on the distribution list because of the grant they offered to communication scientists to design a “Danger!” that would be intelligble for the next 10000 years–itself a ridiculous undertaking.)

    The second problem is accidents, as Penelope quite accurately notes. The touchstone volume on why accidents happen and why risk management practices are not very acceptable to the public is Charles Perrow’s book Normal Accidents. In it he compares numerous types of statistically foreseeable accidents ranging from nuclear plant accidents like Three Mile Island to the dam in Idaho built atop a fault line that causes earthquakes. He points out that the public distaste for nuclear power (no new plant has been built in 30 years) is not irrational; catastrophic and long lasting accidents are much worse than ones that come and go. Fewer than 50 deaths are directly attributable to Chernobyl, but how many sicknesses and how much high-quality Ukranian farmland is now permanently unusuable? Accidents contaminate much more than the typical 1 cubic foot of waste, and accidents happen.

    As Buckminister Fuller once said: “I’m in favor of using nuclear power, but only when it is safely generated in the right place. And that’s on the Sun, –93 million miles away.”

    Perhaps nuclear fusion technology will improve, but until then I think we are better off investing in generating power with renewable sources, cleaner coal scrubber technology (the U.S. now lags behind Germany in this area, and Bush has been rolling back the coal plant regulations and is pushing more rollbacks again), energy conservation, and designing better buildings.

    Where’s your solar hot water system, Ron? I’m been planning mine.

  4. Penelope said,

    November 25, 2005 at 19:23

    I agree with Tim that nuclear power is just a bit too scary. While no energy source is perfect, I’d rather work with wind turbines that chop innocent birds to ribbons and the daily pollution of coal-fired power plants, plus the dream that with research we may be able to make solar power cheaper and more useful, over nuclear power.

    In response to Pat’s post: From what I’ve read, the UN and IAEA report is highly contested, and I’ve seen compelling arguments that there is no way to know how many people became ill or died because of the Chernobyl accident. It would surely be ridiculous to attribute every case of cancer or immune disorder in the Ukraine and its closest neighboring countries to Chernobyl, but to count only the deaths that can be proven to have directly resulted from the accident is equally shortsighted. Furthermore, as Tim pointed out, death is not the only negative effect of radiation. Severe illnesses, environmental damage, and damage to the economy all should be taken into effect, especially if we’re trying to decide whether nuclear power is a better option than, say, coal-fired power plants or wind farms.

    For other views on the degree of damage done by Chernobyl, check out this 2001 BBC article and this letter to the editors of the journal Nature.

  5. Traveling Hypothesis » Is conservation the answer? said,

    December 1, 2005 at 23:52

    [...] In a recent post I argued that we should take another look at nuclear energy, at the very least in the mid-term until alternative energy sources become more reasonable economic alternatives. I was not surprised that comments on that post reacted so strongly to the bad, bad word: nuclear (or should I say newcular) One solution suggested (if half-heartedly) was conservation. [...]

  6. James Aach said,

    December 2, 2005 at 10:24

    See my comments to the “Is conservation the answer?” post of December 1, discussing “Rad Decision” the techno-thriller novel of nuclear power by an industry expert. http://RadDecision.blogspot.com

  7. JamesHopf said,

    December 5, 2005 at 11:54

    The health risks and environmental costs of various energy sources has been rigorously studied over the last several decades. All analyses show very clearly that the overall “external costs” (i.e., the public health risks and environmental effects as well as indirect economic costs) of nuclear power are negligible compared to those of coal and oil. There is complete consensus in the scientific community on this, as the data couldn’t be more clear. And yes, the analyses consider all effects, short term and long term, on sickness as well as death, on things like agriculture, etc….

    The most recent and rigorous of these studies, the European Commission’s ExternE project (search on “ExternE”), which calculates external costs in economic terms, concludes that the external costs of nuclear power are, on average, ~0.2 cents/kW-hr, as compared to 1.0 cents/kW-hr for gas, and ~5-7 cents for coal and oil. Only wind is lower, at ~0.1 cents, and solar is actually higher.

    These conclusions are clearly supported by the historical record. According to EPA, coal plant emissions cause ~25,000 premature deaths every single year in the US alone. Worldwide, the figure is in the hundreds of thousands. In stark contrast to this, Western nuclear power has never had any measurable effect on public health or the environment over its entire 40-year history. Just think, over that time frame coal has killed roughly a million people! The record: one million to zero!! On top of that, coal plants are the leading single cause of CO2 (global warming) emissions, whereas nuclear plants emit none.

    As discussed by others, Chernobyl only caused ~50 clearly attributable deaths. As far as illness is concerned, no other increases in sickness, or death, has been measured, with the exception of ~2000 thyroid cancer cases that may be attributable to the accident. These cancers are highly treatable, however, and few (at most ~100) are expected to die. Some scientists believe that Chernobyl may everntually cause up to ~4000 eventual deaths, due to a small increase in long-term cancer risk. Other scientists disagree with this. Once again, if any such effect exists, it has been too small to measure. It must be noted that the maximum possible consequences of a Western nuclear plant accident will be FAR smaller, due to their non-flammible cores, and the presence of a large containment dome (which Chernobyl lacked completely).

    As far as land contamination is concerned, one fact you don’t hear very often is that over virtually all of the evacuation zone, radiation levels have already fallen to within the range of natural background (seen various places on earth). Any economic losses such as those from agriculture are included in the external cost estimates discussed above. Note that EPA also states that coal plants also inflict ~$100 billion in indirect economic damages every year as well. You’d have to lose a lot of farmland to match that.

    The bottom line is that even the absolute worst case accident at a nuclear plant (which everyone is so afraid of) would not cause anywhere near the economic and public health effect that coal plants have EVERY YEAR, under normal operation. Meanwhile, in all the years when such an accident does not occur (which is to say every year, at least so far, after 40 years), nuclear has no negative effects at all.

    Finally, as far as the waste is concerned, on of the great misconceptions of our time is that nuclear waste is unique in terms of long-term health risk. It is not. In fact, if you were to rank all of our waste streams by how much risk they will pose to people living tens or hundreds of thousands of years from now, nuclear waste would rank dead last, after all other forms of waste, including chemical toxic wastes, ordinary landfill waste (think styrofoam), and (of course) coal plant “fallout” and toxic ash waste.

    All these other waste streams are generated in thousands to millions of times the volume as nuclear waste, and much of it remains toxic forever. Due to their volume, they must be buried relatively carelessly. Consider all of the coal plant “fallout” containing toxins like arsenic and mercury, which were taken from deep underground and gently sprinkled all over the landscape (i.e., the earth’s surface/biosphere). How long will it take for those toxins to migrate down back into the earth. Longer than nuclear waste takes to decay, probably. Meanwhile, it is in infinitely greater contact with humans and the environment than the tiny volume of nuclear waste, buried a mile below the Nevada desert, in the most corrosion-resistant containers man knows how to make.

    So why is nuclear waste having so much trouble, whereas you don’t even hear about problems with the others? Nuclear waste’s long-term hazards are not unprecedented, it’s the requirements placed on disposal that are. All of the sudden, they are demanding absolute proof of no health effect over 10,000 (now a million) years for nuclear waste, and nuclear waste only (i.e., one specific waste stream, for some reason). For the other waste streams, these questions are not even asked. It’s not that the long-term risk is not there. No other waste stream could ever demonstrate what they are demanding for nuclear waste. It is an unprecedented standard, that nuclear waste (i.e., nuclear power) was singled out for.

    Does everyone realize that the whole “issue” we’re talking about here is the fact that there is a ~0.1% chance that, ~100,000 years from now, a handful of people may get an annual dose equal to that recieved by the millions of residents of Denver (and Eastern Washington) all the time?? Does everyone realize that nobody has ever observed a higher incidence of cancer at such annual radiation levels? And this is only if the put a well in the worst section of the “plume” and use it for literally all their water and food? It also assumes that they do not filter it and do nothing to clean it up. Toxic leaks (plumes) of similar consequence happen every year in this country!

    And yet, we are holding up the world’s dominant clean energy source over the ~0.1% possibility that one (more) such plume may occur ~100,000 years in the future. Meanwhile, the planet is warming, and hundreds of thousands of people ARE dying (100% chance) right here, right now, every year, from coal combustion. On top of that, the ash from coal plants will represent a far greater threat to public health 100,000 years from now.

    Any suggestion that coal (even with improved pollution controls) could ever be even remotely comparable (let along preferable) to nuclear is indefensible and irresponsible. Going down that road will cause irrevocable climate change and consign hundreds of thousands of people to totally unnecessary deaths. The issue concerning coal vs. nuclear, from an environmental perspective, has been thoroughly settled.

  8. Traveling Hypothesis » Hello world, again. said,

    September 26, 2006 at 14:15

    [...] Looks like it’s time to cut and paste from all those previous posts and make one of those sitcom-flashback episodes. Something about bringing a few books to India and starting a libertarian country powered by a nuclear power plant. [...]

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