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Out of Big Oil into Big Nuke

The oil gusher in the Gulf is bad. It’s turning people away from fossil fuel, which could be good. If it turned the powers-that-be to clean, sustainable energy, that would be very good.

But here’s what I bet will happen.

Once the weeping and gnashing of teeth has subsided to a numbed realization that we need to do something next, that’s when the real problems will start. That’s when the nuclear lobby will be back.

[Well, that didn’t take long. That was written around May 15th. This was on Marketwatch, May 21st.: “Nuclear Option Back on the Table.” ]

They’ll say we need energy, lots of energy, which we can get only from a large, serious energy source, like nuclear. So let’s go over just a few points related to getting energy from nuclear reactors. (I’m repeating myself. There’s a lot more information and links in those long posts.)

By 2050, North America is projected to need some 7.8 terawatts (pdf) of total primary energy under a business-as-usual scenario. The pro-nuclear argument is that it will provide for business as usual without the sacrifices required by trying to make do with renewable, sustainable, distributed energy which can only provide a fraction of what’s needed.

Take them at their word. Let’s say the weak sisters can’t provide more than about 25% of the projected amount. (I’m setting it higher than pro-nuke scenarios usually do out of kindness. Why it’s a kindness will be clear in a moment.)

Since nuclear plants don’t safely last longer than their operating life of 30 years, if that, all the ones needed in 2050 will have to be built between now and then.

We have forty years (or 2080 weeks) in which to build 75% of 7.8 TW, which is 5,850 gigawatts of capacity. The large reactors built now are on the order of 1GW, The number of fully operational 1GW reactors needed to provide 75% of energy in four decades is 5850.

So about one fully operational 1GW reactor has to be completed every day, except Sundays, starting five months ago. If there are technological breakthroughs so that, say, 5GW commercial reactors can be built, then only a bit more than one per week needs to be finished.

That doesn’t include permitting or siting. Just physical construction. With no delays, large reactors take about five years to build, so there would need to be hundreds of reactors under construction at any one time.

Keep firmly in mind that it is renewable, distributed energy that is unrealistic.

Think about it. You’d need about 21,000 square miles of photovoltaic panels to generate 7.8TWh of power per year at the insolation near Chicago or New England, where it’s 0.3kWh per square foot per day, using 12% efficient solar panels. That’s a square 145 miles on each side. The built-up area in the US is about 125,000 square miles (and some of that’s in Arizona and California, not Chicago). So, worst case, if 15% of built-up areas is roofs, parking lots, windows, and roadways which could have photovoltaics installed, then 100% of US energy needs would be met. That’s without using wind, geothermal, tidal, or any other clean energy. That could be added. Production of photovoltaic materials would have to be ramped up to where the stuff could just roll off the presses. There’s also the fact that you and I can install PV panels if we put our minds to it. You and I aren’t ever going to be installing nukes. That takes rare and highly trained experts, so it’s a much more serious option.

Moving right along, the next item is construction time and costs for nuclear reactors. Costs are in the billions and time to completion in years, so the business risks are immense.

Note: these aren’t the risks of operation. Liability for those is limited by the Price Andersen Act, which makes the taxpayer the insurer of last resort for the nuclear power industry. In current terms, if they lose too much money, you bail them out.

Companies normally carry insurance for projects with business risks too large for them to absorb, but the professional actuaries at insurance companies consider the business risks of reactors (not the radiation risks, just the business risks during construction) to be too large. So, once again, the taxpayers step in to provide guarantees so that construction can go ahead.

For instance, Obama recently tripled the Federal loan guarantees from $18 billion to $54 billion. The guarantees are intended to cover about 80% of costs, so suddenly instead of only being able to build three nukes, we can build thirteen or so. That’s about two weeks’ worth of the necessary number of reactors if nukes are the solution to the end of oil.

It’s a start. And this way that $54 billion can’t be wasted on funding efficiency retrofits of old buildings or a cash for clunkers program.

The third point about using nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels, is that nuclear fuel is a limited nonrenewable resource. If reactors operated on the scale I’m talking about, the practically recoverable uranium would be depleted in a matter of decades.

(New designs don’t change that equation. Commercial fusion energy, or mining seawater or asteroids are not practical solutions on the necessary timescales. Breeder reactors, sometimes called renewable nuclear energy, solve energy problems the same way decapitation solves brain cancer. So-called advanced designs that share the dubious features of breeders, like fast neutron fluxes and exotic coolants, are just more attempts to sell people on the same failed pig in a new poke.)

Insofar as nuclear energy is a real world option, it is not renewable and its fuel would be gone in decades if it was a major energy source.

So. Nukes can’t be built fast enough to replace oil. They’re uninsurable. Uranium is a depletable resource. None of that even considers the usual roster of health, environmental, and waste problems. So, why do nukes ever come up? How can it be that anyone wastes valuable brain cells on such a total loss of an option?

Well, there’s a lot of money to be made for a few people in any big construction project. Highway money pork is nothing compared nuke pork. Roads to nowhere have been built for the pork of it, and nukes will be, too, if the recipients have much to say about it. (One day after I wrote that, I came across this report from January 31st:

Rather than try to propose a similar project that, like Yucca, might take decade [sic] of grueling planning only to be shot down at the end, the administration’s solution is to commission a panel of experts that includes academics, politicians and businessmen like Exelon CEO John Rowe.

The panel will consider fixes like making some easy changes to waste handling laws, but will doubtless also look at some ideas that have gotten little play in the U.S., like breeder reactors that can reprocess old waste into new, usable fuel. [Emphasis added]

The other good thing is that reactors keep the energy monopoly right where it is now. Backyard mini-nukes get, ahem, glowing reviews full of that old time optimism, but it’s not an option many people would choose for their kids’ playground. So there aren’t any real worries about any of that distributed energy, profit-draining hokum. That makes this nonrenewable polluting energy source a real solution to the problems caused by the other nonrenewable polluting energy source.

Get ready for the serious, correctly dressed people telling you so.

[Update, May 31: propertius adds lots of useful numbers in comments. Go read.]

83 Responses

  1. Um, I should tell you right now, quixote, that my dad was nuclear navy and after retirement from the navy was a nuclear reactor maintenance specialist until he died. I learned a lot from him about having a healthy respect for nuclear energy. Nuclear reactors have to be rigorously maintained with an exceptionally high degree of quality control. But the nuclear navy has a unsurpassed record of safety and civilian reactors can too.
    I don’t fear nuclear energy. If the technology can be continuously improved and safety standards kept high, I’m all for it.

    • I think nuclear energy is OK too, if the proper safeguards are in place. But I heard some nuke experts on NPR recently, and apparently there are new smaller nuclear plants that are not going have containments. Maybe you know about that RD?

      • There is also talk of putting a small nuke down the pipe to stop the spill.


        • It’s time to send in the Navy. Maybe a nuke isn’t necessary. Maybe all you need are some really experienced sub nuke tender hull technicians.

          • That’s what I think–and so do lots of other people. But Obama prefers to remain passive and inert.

          • Maybe they’re studying the issue. Or maybe, what needs to be done to stop the leak will preclude further drilling at this well.

        • It would mess up the money potential for the well because BP wouldn’t be able to drill there any more. I suppose in the scheme of things, BP is going to have to pay lots of settlements but if they can recoup losses by saving the well… it is worth the environmental disaster (to them) because fish and pellicans can’t file law suits? I guess you gotta have your priorities straight.

          Crooks & Liars

          • shoot – my crooks & liars link didn’t work. Hopefully, I did it right this time – I am a programmer after all!

            Anyway this just talks about why they have’t already blown up the well.

            crooks & liars

      • Nuclear technology has changed significantly since my dad’s era. I would oppose any plan that does not provide for safety and containment standards that go above and beyond what is required. You cannot be too careful. That’s the bottom line. Hire people with unsurpassed integrity and an anal OCD compulsion to make everything super perfect.
        Safety, safety, safety.
        Then, stand back and watch the electrons flow.

        • That’s the problem–the total lack of government regulation.

          • Oh, I’m sure the nuclear industry is heavily regulated. But you could regulate it to death and still not be able to account for every little nit picky stupid thing. I take that back. You *can* account for every stupid little picky thing. But regulation can’t always account for these things. So, maybe what we have is already enuf. What is needed are well trained people who are sticklers for stuff and can think twelve moves ahead and can play out different scenarios in their minds and have plugged every leak, closed every loophole and scheduled maintenance to exacting standards.
            I’d hire only the best, people with impeccable character and experience.
            You can’t regulate that.

        • Any tritium leaks into groundwater (and drinking water) in your area? Brought to you by Excelon, iirc….

    • RD,

      The Soviet Navy, alas, did not have the enviable safety record of the US nuclear fleet. Given the current environment (pun not intended) of deregulation, corruption, regulatory capture, capped liability, and management by financial (rather than technical) interests, I would expect the safety standards of new commercial reactors to be a lot closer to that of our former enemies than of our own fleet.
      Even in the US, we can point to the failures at INEL and TMI as examples of how things can go terribly wrong – I think such incidents are likely to much worse in the future.

      Why do I think this?

      Well, mostly because of the continued ascendancy of the professional managerial class in scientific, technical, and engineering enterprises. I’m not disputing the value of finance professionals – I am disputing whether they possess the intellectual toolkit to assess properly the magnitude of technical risks (particularly when financial liability is limited, as it is for the nuclear industry). Executive compensation these days is all about higher quarterly returns rather than planning for the long-term. What we will see in this environment is corner-cutting in the name of “efficiency”, “cutting the fat”, “being lean and mean”, and, of course the ever-popular “enhancing shareholder value”, Maintenance will be deferred, technical objections will be silenced, regulators (and politicians) will be bought off, and it will all be blanketed under a warm, fuzzy cloud of “green” PR. I’m sure that the phenomenon will be familiar to you from the pharmaceutical industry.

      The fact of the matter is that most of the negative consequences of nuclear power, from the magnitude of an (admittedly extremely unlikely) catastrophic failure to the costs of decomissioning and long-term waste storage are externalities whose costs can be palmed off on the taxpayers and therefore do not figure in the kind of cost-benefit calculations that the reactor manufacturers and utilities are going to conduct on these facilities (any mnore than they did on Deepwater Horizon).

    • “and civilian reactors can too.” Yes, they can. Just like offshore oil drilling can be done with excellent quality control. But in reality they don’t have that quality control. I worry that nuclear wouldn’t either.

      There’s a big difference between rigorous QC in the Navy, and civilian “QC” done by the likes of BP.

    • In the meantime, we have tritium contamination from the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in an aquifer here that supplies drinking water to the community outside of the plant.

    • Maybe the armed services should operate them and not the capitalist market forces that operate the oil industry?

  2. I’m actually quite open to the idea of nuclear power. I think it’s ridiculous that advances in that area haven’t been pursued.

    Of course, I pretty much grew up with a nuclear reactor “in my backyard”, and knew most of the people who worked there. So while I’m aware of potential problems, I also am not knee-jerk freaked out by scare-mongering over it.

    *sigh* I doubt we’ll have a serious and scientific discussion of the pros and cons of this option in the USA, though. We’ll get the usual 2 sides: a) Nuclear is a tool of teh devil!!! and b) Nuclear is foolproof, so let’s make some big bucks!!

  3. I don’t want to cut off debate on this subject. Clearly, there are strong feelings about this. But Dandy Tiger’s news post this morning included a piece on how some of our beliefs about science defy rationalization. I am reminded of all of the protests of the 80s against nuclear energy. Then there was Three Mile Island (which was a serious incident with minor environmental impact) to Chernoybal (which was a catastrophic incident with major and ongoing environmental and health impacts). The public has become oversensitized to any mention of nuclear energy. These few incidents have completely overshadowed amazing, decades long records of safety and efficiency. While opponents of nuclear energy focus intensively on the negative aspects, and let’s face it, there are negatives, they completely ignore any possible positives or the fact that technology is light years better now than it was even 30 years ago.
    But the thing that really frustrates me is the fact that we are ready to permanently preclude this source of energy before we have a viable alternative. That ignores the very real impact of current energy prices on the poor and middle class. I am not saying that we should destroy the environment in order to meet our energy needs. That would be irresponsible. But to treat nuclear energy as a taboo seems to elevate “clean energy” to an almost religious status while ignoring the reality of diminishing energy resources on our culture at large. I believe that nuclear energy can serve as part of a transition phase for us while we figure out how to efficiently harness other sources for that clean energy future. We need a big picture plan to move to clean energy while reducing our reliance on energy. There has to be a concerted effort to move to more mass transit, telecommuting, reducing the carbon footprint etc.
    Include backyard pebble bed reactors, give them a phase out time. Plan, plan, plan.
    And remember, most people don’t give a flying fig how the electricity gets to their houses. When the lights go off, they will be more than happy to invest in nuclear.

    • Let’s not leave out the Hanford Nuclear Facility in Washington State. The clean-up from that environmental disaster is ongoing. I’m all for finding alternative energy sources, but when there is a potential for a major environmental disaster, who are we to trust? We were given all kinds of assurances about deep water drilling and all of the safety measures that would be taken and now they’ve ruined the Gulf of Mexico. I wish that nuclear energy was a viable option, but I don’t know who to trust about the safety and disposal problems.

      • That’s just it. We can’t trust corporations or the government. Period.

        • You go to the industry with the best safety records, learn what they do, how they do it and copy it relentlessly.
          Back in my dad’s day, that was the US Navy.

          • But who is that “you”? Not the corporations or the corrupt government supervisors, of course. There’s no profit incentive in safety, therefore let’s have -others- take the risks while we – corporations – run away with the profits. That’s the problem.

      • The “downwinders” from Hanford will tell you they have a lot in common with the people and animals getting oiled in the Gulf. Except the downwinders’ problems aren’t so visible until decades later.

    • People forget that alternatives energy sources like solar are still reliant on fossil fuels for building the equipment. That’s another serious problem that no one has addressed because of the political fights.

    • And I’m sure that is exactly what will happen. There will be contrived, as well as real, incidents of the lights going out or at least restricted use of electricity, to “convince” people that the nuclear option has to be instituted. Funding for real sources of renewable energy will continue to be minimal and consequentially not seriously pursued or implemented. That is the problem with fast forwarding any non-renewable energy source, the real solutions for renewable energy just keep getting pushed back further and further until it will be too late, because we will have destroyed our ability to survive on earth by that time, no matter what we do. I’m not completely against “bridge” energy sources, like nuclear, BUT, we (the people) need to make sure that clean renewable, sustainable energy sources are being funded and implemented at the same rate as potentially dangerous, non-renewable and unsustainable energy sources.

  4. I can understand what dak is going through down in the Gulf because of living within ten miles of TMI when Unit 2 unloaded.
    With corporations racing to the lowest common denominator in pay and staffing, I’d say the chances of another nuclear power plant accident are increasing.
    What makes you think the people staffing the NRC are any higher caliber than those staffing the MMS?

    • I’m sure they aren’t. It seems to me we need to find a way to get our government under control before anything else. But is that possible?

      • I have so little confidence in that happening, especially since the Supremes gave corporations the okay to legally flood elections with money. We saw in 2008 how the ptb prevented Hillary from even getting a floor vote – she was going to be allowed anywhere near being POTUS. I might begin to trust government again with representatives of her integrity and care for people – but we don’t have that and I haven’t a clue how to get our voices back into government. So much corruption, bribery, threats and money involved – those hurdles are steep. I’m at a complete loss as to what to do.

    • My dad was recruited by TMI post accident to help put the remaining unit back online. I took a tour of the control room and my dad pointed out where the problem was. It turns out that there was a stuck valve. The valves were all monitored and there were alarm systems and annunciators in place. All systems were alerting and annunciating properly. So, what happened? Well, from the operator’s point of view, literally, he couldn’t see the one annuciator that told him there was a problem that needed to be addressed. The crucial annunciator was located on the other side of the bank of panels that was facing him. Had the operator made a routine sweep of the annunciator panels by getting up out of his seat and walking between panels, he would have seen it. In all probability, he had other things to deal with and didn’t realize where the problem was.
      This kind of thing likely wouldn’t happen these days. Those panels and annunciators we old technology. Of course, even the best computer regulated systems fail so any future system should be designed with multiple failsafe systems. And rigorous maintenance of the reactor should be strictly enforced.
      It can be done. My dad brought the other reactor at TMI back online. He had an outstanding record of performance.

      • Your dad was trustworthy. His boss wanted him to do a good job and not to sacrifice quality for speed.

        That’s not how corporate America works. Look at Big Pharma — wanting short-term profits and ignoring the longer-term necessity for smart researchers and good working conditions.

        • Um, I work for Big Pharma. I think I know what motivates my colleagues. But I am not appointed as a spokesperson for my industry nor do I represent the views of the company I work for. Nevertheless, I will say that the people I work for have extremely high standards in research. I can’t think of even one who gas compromised their professional integrity or the safety of a consumer negligently or deliberately for profit.
          The people in you refer to are simply people. They are not demons.

          • RD,

            I think that when most people refer to “Big Pharma” they really mean “the management of the major pharmaceutical companies.” From your own descriptions, I think it would be difficult to find a more venal, short-sided, and unscrupulous lot…unless, of course, one looked in the boardrooms and executive suites of any other major enterprises. Nobody faults pharmaceutical researchers, any more than they fault nuclear engineers and technicians. The question is: will their management let them do their jobs?

          • Don’t forget the venal investors with their retirement funds that the management is supposed to work for. Don’t like a company or industry, stop using their products. Don’t like your state or federal government, stop using their taxpayer funded public services. It’s the only way.

          • You’d be surprised by how many people I work with can’t tell the difference. They think they are being unfairly attacked. Now, why do you think that is?

  5. The problem with the nuclear energy is the same with oil and frankly the so called “free market”.
    We already know that in spite of huge profits the oil industry made absolutely no investments in updating the technology of dealing with accidents.
    The Gulf of Mexico 1979 accident was being dealt with the very same methods they still have in 2010 (it took then 9 months to stop it). In 30 years they couldn’t come up with anything new (besides drilling deeper and deeper)
    In short, I am not so much afraid of the “nukes” as I am afraid of greed and incompetence.

  6. I’m not actually talking about whether nuclear energy is worth using, all other things being equal. My point is that all other things are not equal.

    On the one hand you have clean, renewable energy sources that provide distributed jobs and improve property values and can satisfy projected energy needs. On the other hand, you have a polluting resource which will run out rather soon and physically cannot be built fast enough to satisfy requirements. Money spent on Option Two cannot be spent on Option One.

    A no-brainer, I’d say.

    Riverdaughter, I remember you mentioning your Dad’s experience once earlier. Given the constraints for the military, nuclear subs were by far the best option. The same is true now for some spacecraft and, for instance, libration point space station designs. I’m only saying that when there are significantly cheaper, faster, cleaner options for a given application, like earthbound energy, why go for the expensive, toxic, limited option because it’s useful in a different context?

    About manufacture and pollution. Obviously, the same goes for nukes. A huge amount of fossil fuel is used in uranium mining, transport, reactor construction, etc., etc. Cement production is actually one of the bigger factors in greenhouse gas release, all by itself. The difference with clean energies is that eventually we’d wean ourselves off that. It seems kind of foolish not to start only because you can’t have a 100% clean economy from the get-go.

    And then there’s the whole thing, which is a major peeve with me, and probably everyone here, that it would be nice (read: essential to our survival…) to get away from Big Anything. Nuclear energy lends itself to huge monopolies. Solar lends itself to small scale use. Power to the people, say I!

    • Huge monopolies and, of course, a single point of failure (which is the kiss of death for system reliability).

    • Quixote, thank you, THANK YOU for making this point. Localize, not globalize. I say cover every roof with solar FIRST, before insisting that nuclear is the only real option.

      BTW, it takes a tremendous amount of water to run a nuclear plant. Fine for nuclear subs, but where’s all that extra water gonna come from on land?


  7. I think that the nuke it nuts and others are hoping the Gulf would be so destroyed, that the drill baby drill people could Then drill with impunity because the Gulf is already ruined and we can’t make it any worse.
    Am I being too cynical? Is that even possible anymore? “Never let a good disaster go to waste!!!!!!”. Oh goody, we can drill with out regard for the fish or the water or the coast, it is already ruined!

    • I think what we’ll really see in the near-term is a big PR blitz by the coal companies. We’ll hear a lot about “clean coal” and “carbon squestration” (even though it’s never been demonstrated on an industrial scale).

      I’m not strictly opposed to nuclear – especially technologies like subcritical thorium reactors which are inherently safer and produce much less dangerous waste than light-water uranium designs. Unfortunately, these technologies have also never been demonstrated at scale. There are bound to be technical issues which show up at larger scales which simply haven’t been observed in research reactors. There is no way to predict in advance what these issues will be or how long it will take to resolve them.

      The other problem with light-water uranium reactors is fuel availability. Quixote alluded to this, but did not elaborate.

      Let’s run some numbers:

      Proven uranium reserves worldwide are 4 million metric tonnes. Current consumption is 60,000 tonnes per year. At current consumption rates, that 4 million tonnes will be exhausted in under 67 years. That consumption level corresponds to 7% of worldwide energy production. Increase that to, say, 70% and we run out of proven reserves in a little under 7 years.

      The IAEA estimates that total reserves are probably 16 million tonnes – even if all of that were recoverable we’d run out in under 30 years assuming that energy consumption remains constant worldwide.

      We all know that’s not going to happen. Even with strict conservation standards, continued industrialization of China and India is going to cause worldwide energy consumption to increase.

      In the immortal words of Bill Clinton, “that dog won’t hunt.” We cannot obtain most of our energy from uranium fission, because there simply isn’t enough fuel in the world to do it.

      End of story.

      Alternative fuel reactors (like thorium reactors) would change that quite a bit (there’s about 4 times as much thorium in the world as uranium), but they are unproven. Anyway, that’s only delaying the problem. We would still run out of fuel in a generation or two.

      • All excellent points. And the coal business. Yes. Unfortunately. “Clean” coal is another boondoggle Obama’s moneymen want a piece of.

        (I’m not saying coal can’t be made cleaner than it is. But the so-called clean coal program requires technological breakthroughs that haven’t appeared in years of study. And it’s a huge sink for money that could be spent on real solutions.

        Of course, those solutions don’t benefit the moneymen. ‘Nuff said.)

        • Lest we forget, the DOE pilot “clean coal” plant was cancelled during the Bush administration because of cost overruns (or, more cynically, to free up cash to pursue our continued misadventures in Iraq). In a perfect world, we’d have all paid attention to Jimmy Carter, elected him to a second term, and done some serious energy research – but Ronald Reagan told us we had enough oil to last 50 years so there wasn’t a problem. I remember being absolutely gobsmacked that anyone would fall for that, but I guess it was proof positive that Mencken was right.

      • Unlike some other big nations, our government doesn’t really direct or lead industrial policy, we mainly regulate markets. That includes long term investment and development of energy solutions. Maybe that should change.

      • While we’re running numbers, we can at least make a stab at costing this all out. In 2008, the installed cost of a PV system in the US averaged $7.50/watt (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/10/091021144249.htm). Assuming no further cost decreases (i.e., ignoring the inevitable economies of scale from higher production and assuming no improvements in PVC efficiency), the installed cost of 5.85 terawatts of PV capacity would be $44 trillion (2008) dollars. World GDP in 2008 was $61.1 trillion. So, for 72% of one year’s worldwide GDP we could install enough PV capacity to power the world. That’s actually not too bad, because we have until 2050 (40 years) to get there. Figure 1.8% of GDP annually between now and then and we’re home free. The catch, of course, is that it gets dark – so we need double the capacity because on average half of it will be offline at any given time. So, 3.6% of GDP between now and 2050 assuming:
        1)GDP doesn’t change, and
        2)PV costs don’t change

        Basically, it’s a couple of TARPs per year.

        How does this compare to what we currently spend on petroleum? Well:

        1) Current worldwide petroleum consumption is 85.5 million barrels/day or 31.2 billion barrels/year (http://www.eia.doe.gov/basics/quickoil.html)
        2) average wellhead price (not counting refining, transportation, and markups) was $94.04/bbl, or $2.9 trillion/year

        So, for what we’re currently spending on crude oil we could make the switch to renewables by 2050 (and have change left over).

        Obviously, we can’t just make that swap – I’m just trying to make a point. Renewables are *not* expensive – at least not relative to oil. Not even at current prices. This doesn’t account for the following:

        1) PV price per watt has been declining at 3%/year over the last decade.
        2) Oil isn’t going to stay at $94.04/bbl

  8. PVCs have an effective lifespan of about 30 years, either from depletion of the souce material or the breakdown of the panels themselves. Wind would be a better source, given that it delivers a more even generation of power over time and employs conventional mechanical tencology.

    There are large scale solar plants that focus sunlight at one point to superheat a fluid driving a turbine. Solar is definitely a good possibility for the African continent given their relative lack of infrastructure.

    Nuclear is actually a urban vs rural solution. Places like France and Japan have been snapping up nuclear technology due to their small size and lack of energy resources. Renewable energy tends to trail in those areas because the resource they frequently require is land. Even if you have land, wind and solar generate in the DC realm but need to be converted to AC for transmission, which causes loss.

    In the US, the clean fuel of choice is becoming natural gas, except that it is harvested in the same manner as petroleum. Development of waste sourced methane has been slow at best. The question is what’s worse, the pollution from a fuel or the potential environmental damage from its uncontrolled release. In that sense, corn is extremely clean, but it has a negative energy balance.

    I would prefer municipal grids be developed as opposed to these massive “smart” grids that basically just defray the cost per kilowatt by making the source bigger. It would also break people of the NIMBY-ism that turns certain rural areas into energy ghettos for big cities.

    • Hydropower, which we use lots of here in the Pacific Northwest, is clean and renewable with one big exception — dams can screw up salmon habitat and salmon runs. Problems are exacerbated by megadams. Problems could be minimized by more and smaller hydropower projects.

      There are some promising tests using ocean hydropower — tides — for energy.

      • What we may have to face in the future is using the relative advantages of geography. Right now, we air condition the desert and heat the northeast and the midwest. We eat tropical fruits in winter climates and ocean life in the landlocked middle of the country. People may have to consider moving from crowded cities to smaller towns with wind turbines or ocean current.

    • Yes, PVC’s have a finite lifespan – but so does pretty much everything else (nuclear reactors, wind turbines, and gas turbines included). Maintenance and operating expenses have to be figured into the cost of any energy source. One of the problems with both conventional and nuclear plants is that much of this cost is hidden: waste disposal, pollution abatement, decomissioning, etc.

      PV capacity is *slightly* more expensive than nuclear capacity from the standpoint of capital costs. In June, 2008, Moody’s estimated the capital cost of installing new nuclear generating capacity in the US at approximately $7.00/watt, as compared to $7.50/watt for installed solar. That’s a (very) slight advantage for nuclear, but:

      1) It doesn’t account for operational costs and fuel
      2) It doesn’t account for waste disposal or decommissioning costs
      3) It doesn’t account for maintenance costs

      and besides that, there isn’t enough uranium. There is, however, a very large fusion power plant located just 93 million miles away which has an astounding reliability record and requires no maintenance whatsoever.

      • As availability drops, the expensive process of spent fuel reprocessing will become more cost-effective.

        Nuclear becomes a bad idea in the realm of international security as well. Spent fuel is practically useless except for putting in dirty bombs to pepper and urban population center. That oil powers like Iran and North Korea should need a nuclear power program is laughable.

        I think solar costs will rise as scale increases. The first generation solar cells were cheap due to a surplus of manufactured silicon from a collapsed semiconductor industry in the US.

        There have been solar engine designs since the 19th century that do not use silicon. I think the physics that needs to be employed is heat pump technology. Instead of painting all the rooftops white, we should be painting them black. Capture heat energy in the atticks of houses and producing energy with it with boilers. You can always cool an area with air compressors. The gas laws make it possible to get 3 BTU of cooling for every 1 BTU of energy.

        • I think solar costs will rise as scale increases. The first generation solar cells were cheap due to a surplus of manufactured silicon from a collapsed semiconductor industry in the US.

          The empirical data would seem to contradict that. PVC prices have been consistently dropping at over 3% per year for the last decade and a half. Several manufacturers dropped below $1/watt last year.

          • And, of course, the efficiency of solar cells has increased dramatically over the last few years. Commercial cells are generally around 15% efficient now (some are as high as 20%), but NREL has demonstrated efficiencies of over 40%.

  9. OT (slightly): “I can’t wait for Barack Obama to become president.”


    Pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?

    • I especially liked this part:

      Someone wake me up, oh, say, about a year-and-a-half into the Obama administration, wouldya?

      By that time they should have really made their mark, and life will be so much better in America.

      One thing’s for sure, once Barack Obama comes to power you’ll never again see an oil corporation-infested administration do nothing about a major crisis, lie about it, and protect British Petroleum instead of the American public.

    • Right. Too bad Commondreams was infested with Hillary haters when it counted.


  10. Well, according to the great Masters of the Himalaya, the toxins from nuclear power are the single most toxic threat to life on Earth at this time and the cause of most Autism, Alzheimer’s and many cancers. We proceed down that path to our peril.

    from Share-international.org:
    If men were to see the state of the world as We, the Masters, see, they would be amazed, dumfounded and afraid, all at the same time. So far from the reality is man’s view of conditions on Earth, and so lacking in judgement is he about future possibilities that, without help, man would watch his planetary home languish and die. As it is, planet Earth is in a sad and perilous condition while each day brings it nearer to the critical. Many voices have sounded warnings on global warming, and many views have been expressed, but even the most dire prophecy falls short of the calamity facing the world today. Few there are who see the immediacy of the threat and the urgency of the steps needed to counter it. Great as is the peril posed by global warming, this, unfortunately, is not the greatest, or most hazardous, faced by man today. Did he but know it, man is engaged in a slow but steadily increasing intoxification of the race and of the lower kingdoms. Toxicity, pollutions, of all kinds, and in all fields, is now the greatest danger to men, animals and the Earth itself. All are poisoned and sick in their own way.

    Sorry tale

    Unknown to men but evident to Us, the greatest harm sustained by men and planet in this sorry tale is caused by nuclear radiation. Men have gone far astray in the development of this most dangerous energetic source. Led astray by greed, and the false hope of vast profits, they have concentrated their experiments in ‘taming’ the most dangerous source of energy ever discovered by man, neglecting, meanwhile, a perfectly safe alternative use of the energy of the atom. Atomic fusion, cold and harmless, could be theirs from a simple isotope of water, everywhere available in the oceans, seas and rivers, and in every shower of rain. Man must cease his ‘toying with death’. Atomic fission is the result of the atomic bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki; which erupted in Chernobyl and causes, subtly, death and sickness today. It is “that which stands where it ought not” and which must be renounced by man if he would prosper further.


    Earth scientists are confident that they have, indeed, tamed the monster, and can keep it under control. They do not realize that their instruments are crude indeed, that they measure only the lower aspects of nuclear radiation, that stretching above these dense-physical levels are levels finer and more dangerous to the health and well-being of all. But for the tireless efforts of our

  11. France today uses nuclear for 80% of their power needs, 10% fossil fuel, 10% hydro and other renewables, and they are happy. Never understood why Greenpeace has such a problem with that.

  12. Quixote, I listened to an expert guest on The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC-FM a few years ago who said that if every roof surface in NYC had the limited efficiency solar panels of the day, NYC could supply all its own electricity needs as well as for much of the surrounding metro area. Even in the weather of the Mid-Atlantic.

    (I’ve posted about this before — does anyone recall this program? I emailed to the station, but never got a reply.)

    Anything done, even talked about? Not as far as I can find out. Bloomberg? Meh. Paterson? Meh. Obama? Meh.

    But, Obama had the opportunity to establish and encourage photovoltaics in this nation, the opportunity to provide jobs for installers of solar panels — and did…what? He has Steven Chu as Secty of Energy. Why not an Apollo Program Redux (actually more suitably named for solar power than getting a man to the moon) for getting the best and brightest minds to form a crash study, research group to increase the efficiency of solar panels?

    If we could use what we have now as a bridge, then we would save the pollution from coal and oil that is currently used for electricity production. We would cut some of the oil needed for this economy.

    Why not, Mr. President? Why the hell not?

    Quixote, do you know of any issues which would make this difficult to impossible? Other than our corporatists feeling that private industry deserves to make as much profit as possible and bleed the consumers dry? Not realizing that some things must be done for the common good?

    I would approve of the government using right of eminent domain to commandeer roof tops and other possible sites. Conservative and Libertarians would not. But, the president is supposed to protect the Constitution and provide for the welfare and common good of the population.

    Why the hell not?

    • Steven Chu is still on the biofuel bandwagon, which is a less credible energy source as scale increases.

      • Well. it’s tempting because it closes the carbon cycle (assuming you can do it with weeds rather than energy-intensive food crops). It might be useful for some applications, but I think biofuels will remain very much a niche energy source.

        • The other thing about biofuels is that the theoretical maximum of energy they can provide is a fraction of what we need. So they’re useful for some applications and in some situations, a niche as you say, but outside of that it’s a wasteful misapplication of money and effort.

          (The theoretical maximum assumes every usable sq foot of land used to produce biofuels, which isn’t exactly practical, of course.)

  13. I see that I agree with several other people on this thread.

    I think nuclear energy could be done safely, but it won’t be done safely, due to the vast corruption and callousness of our corporate elite and their tame pet governments.

    I don’t know how to fix that corruption and callousness. Human nature being the despicable thing that it is, I doubt they can be fixed.

    • So, on balance, I would agree with Quixote.

    • That’s the same way I feel about the carbon trading market. Cap alone might be better than cap and trade, because the trading creates a distorted set of winners and losers.

  14. Thanks for broaching the topic, quixote. This goes back to trust. Right now there is a public lack of trust of the people who are supposed to be overseeing our safety and taking care of business when things go wrong. Until that trust is restored, practical discussions are hard to have because people don’t even trust what they’re being told. The oil kill situation right now is frightening.

    • I couldn’t agree more. It’s unfortunate but distrust is undermining all of our public and private institutions. The realization of this fact should be seen as a positive thing.

      • 3 Wickets above was posting about Japan and France.

        Japan is, if anything, a more elitist and hierarchical society than the Reagan-and-after-era USA, but as I understand Japanese society–I am NOT an expert–the members of the Japanese elites tend to feel a genuine sense of obligation to their subordinates. To ignore the needs of the masses would stain the honor of the elites.

        I am no expert on France, either, but I would guess that the French elites make sure they take care of the masses, lest the masses decide to “shave them with the national razor” again. 😈

        But here in the good old USA, the elites know neither honor nor fear, so I suspect a massive switchover to nuclear power would lead to at least one Chernobyl-level catastrophe sooner or later.

        The US elites, however, generally

        • Please ignore the last incomplete line. I wish this comment system included a “Preview” feature. 🙄

        • If you allow for some generalization, I have the sense that both Japan and France are inherently socialist societies. Japan, more psychologically, France more politically. Neither societies worship money, and both have strong education and work ethics. Was talking with my wife earlier tonight about how the French seem to take great pride in their chosen trades, from early on in their lives, and how that trade and the individual’s personality make the person, more than their social standing or relative wealth. Japan is similar, with more emphasis on social norms than individual personalities. The French and Japanese also have a great deal of respect for each other…both between and within their respective societies. Both are also facing big economic challenges these days in supporting their social systems as their populations get older.

      • RD notes what may be our biggest problem of all.

        How can we solve any problems when our society’s elites consist largely of sociopaths? 👿

        • Greedos as WV likes to say. We do have to be competitive in the global economy. Our economy is still larger than Japan, China, and Germany combined, and our living standard on average is higher than 90% of the world’s people. We are 5% of the world population and still consume 25% of its resources. We could choose to isolate ourselves and give the Soviet experiment another try, or a partial isolation and try weaning ourselves off our debt and resource consumption. Could be a bit dangerous though given our record for sociopaths at the top. 🙂

          • We are another variation of the Soviet system, in that the majority of the nation’s wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of a small elite. I don’t see that it makes much difference whether that small elite is called the Communist Party or the Fortune 500.

          • Are workers part of the elite, how about the investors. What if some workers are the investors. Were there taxpayers in the Soviet Union. It’s a different system in any case.

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