like electricity? hug a nuclear reactor today.

Japan’s recent troubles have given the opponents of nuclear energy some new ammunition.  Using the failure of a fission reactor after a 9.0 quake and subsequent 100-foot tidal wave as evidence that nuclear power plants are unsafe is just a bit silly, in my opinion.  But the thing that drives me batty about that argument is that it ignores the negative effect on the environment and the overall well-being of society if we do get rid of all the nuke plants:

You have to replace them with other sources of energy, all of which are much harder on ol’ Gaia than Andy the Atom.  Coal plants are really dirty, and coal is a finite resource.  Also, we’d need to build a bunch of new coal plants to make up the lost megawatts from the nuke plants, and with NIMBYs everywhere hitting the streets and writing their Senator Congressman angry letters every time someone wants to build a new anything energy-related nearby, that would be a tough feat to accomplish.

Green power is a non-starter when it comes to providing all the electricity we need.  Right now, it’s supplemental energy–just a little over 10% of our juice comes from solar, water, or wind power.  It’s also unpredictable, and we simply don’t have the ability to store the excess power for wide use.  And wind power is not only a very low-yield way to make kilowatts, but also saddled with almost the same NIMBY opposition as power plants.  A lot of the people who want renewable energy also don’t want a giant spinning rotor within sight of their property, because how ugly and ZOMG teh birds.

In the end, it’s simple math.  Our advanced technological society needs a steady and reliable supply of megawatts to function, and the only way to meet that need cleanly is with the help of nuclear fission plants.  Anyone who is in favor of shutting down all the reactors ASAP either can’t do math, or has a different sort of agenda–one that’s opposed to technology and industrialism.  Until we get atomic fusion licked, nuclear fission is the only game in town for energy that’s clean, infinitely renewable, not derived from fossil fuels, and suitable for our vast energy needs.


47 thoughts on “like electricity? hug a nuclear reactor today.

  1. Chrystoph says:

    While it is not currently in place, you forget that we have the capability to produce orbital power collection.

    If the politicos would pull their heads out, the space program could service power collection sats which could beam the power down to the planet at various points.

    Sell the power to the grids at a discount and you’re off and running. With a decentralized architecture and a 10% redundancy in sats, you have a kick start to the economy, as much power as we have sats to collect AND a new and growing job market.

    All of the tech for this is stuff we already have, it just needs to be combined and actually put to use.

  2. LittleRed1 says:

    Another problem with hydropower, besides the “think of the fishes!” environmental opposition, is that there are only a limited number of good hydropower sites, most of which are already taken.

    I’ve probably read too many bad sci-fi scenarios, but Christoph’s idea gives me visions of someone hacking the computers running the orbital power collectors and distributors and threatening to do something rude if they are not paid off or surrendered to.

  3. diane says:

    From what I understand, the Japanese plants are an older design, and current designs are a bit better equpped to handle this kind of thing (but what do I know – I live in Wisconsin, and there is little chance of a tsunami hitting Point Beach plant to test the theory).

    Thanks to the crazies out there, we may find ourselves going back to the dark (and cold) ages literally if they gain enough traction to squash future nuclear power plant development.

    • Gary says:

      Yes, I understand that the Fukushima plant is about 42 years old and was destined to be taken off-line in the very near future anyway. I guess that partly explains why they looked so weird with a cubical building and no cooling tower like our reactors did at TMI, Trojan in N. Oregon, etc. (both of which are non-functioning today).

      Yes, nuclear is the only way to go for reliable, uninterrupted power (while I do believe in alternate energy and have a PV system myself to reduce my ever-climbing electric bill, most alternatives that are “green” are not reliable; sun isn’t always there, wind isn’t always blowing, etc., etc.)

  4. Leatherneck says:

    As I conduct risk-management as part of my dayjob, I’d like to address the decision–lo, the 40-odd years ago–to put those reactors where they are.

    If you countenance the risk of tsunami, then almost by definition you’re assuming the risk of earthquake preceding the wave.

    I’ve read that those risks were considered in the design individually, but not sequentially. For a risk with potentially catastrophic consequences (NOT the case currently, but possible) the one-two punch of earthquake/tsunami should have been mitigated by engineering or explicitly accepted during the design phase.


  5. Außenseiter says:

    It’s sad that the French are the only ones who had the right idea and put it into practice…

    Coincidentally, they’re the world’s premier electricity exporters too. And they’re not even running their reactors full time, meaning they have reserves of power.

    BTW, some green power is reliable. Tidal and wave power, for example. Unless some a$$hole takes out the moon of course. But nuclear is far more versatile.

    Deuterium fusion won’t ever be used. You have the same problems as with a fission reactor and you have to maintain the plasma at improbable pressure to boot. Pure fission makes more sense..

    Maybe some other form of fusion that doesn’t have that much neutrons flying off.

  6. Fred2 says:

    And we have to keep repeating and repeating this to the morons until hopefully one day we manage to drown out the aggressive crusading idiots.

  7. Jay G. says:

    Anyone who is in favor of shutting down all the reactors ASAP either can’t do math

    Bet they drive Priuses, too…

    • perlhaqr says:

      Which would be both proof that they can’t do math and don’t have any idea what’s really in the batteries to boot.

      • MoogieP says:

        Heh. What’s in the batteries.

        • perlhaqr says:

          Well, they’re chock full of nickel. Which, while not as toxic as the conventional lead acid battery in a straight IC car, in the Prius has the disadvantage of being much much larger.

        • Gary says:

          Yeah, they use Ni-MH cells in the high voltage battery pack behind the rear seat; depending on the model year, it’s either in the low 200V range or high 200V range. Toyota has an auxiliary fan to help keep it cool. When they get in a crash that shorts the pack, interesting kinds of fire results. Firemen and hazmat personnel are supposed to be trained on dealing with these hybrids when they’re on fire.

    • Priusi?

      Also, perlhaqr FTW!


      • perlhaqr says:

        The official plural of Prius is Prii, according to the commercial I got served up on YouTube before my listen of “Wish”, by NIN.

        Yeah, it seemed incongruous to me, too.

        • Leatherneck says:

          The official plural of Prius is Prii

          The plural of them is TRAFFIC JAM


        • LittleRed1 says:

          Second declension, masculine, nominative plural ending would be -i, so several Prius-es are Prii. If you give them to someone, they become Priis.

          What do you mean my Latin nerd is showing?

        • perlhaqr says:

          The plural of them is TRAFFIC JAM

          I laughed, I admit it. 🙂

    • Al Terego says:

      Jay, subsequent commenters’ proclaimed linguistic expertise and nerdiness notwithstanding, I’ll back you up on Priuses.

      Proper nouns, even stupid ones, are not subject to rules. Else those who share Caesar’s name would be a bunch of Julii…


  8. Al Terego says:

    The ultimate irony seems to be that the failure of low-tech backup power systems at these high-tech power producing facilities – which themselves held up pretty much intact to the forces of a relocation of the spit of earth on which they sit and the resultant relocation of a goodly volume of the formerly surrounding ocean – is apparently the culprit responsible for the explosions and damage to containment structures and for the dry rod storage tanks and ultimately any “meltdown”…

    But we won’t be hearing too much about improving boring old standby power generators and battery banks I’m sure…and why?

    “Anyone who is in favor of shutting down all the reactors ASAP either can’t do math, or *has a different sort of agenda*…” There ya go.


  9. Sigivald says:

    Well, on “green” power, those excellent caveats about unreliability don’t much apply to hydro-power, which is pretty steady.

    But we’re pretty close to tapped out on good sites for that, and the Green Whiners want less, not more, to help save the baby fishies (that half of them don’t even want you to eat, it seems).

    Al: The battery banks were fine; it’s just that batteries necessarily last for a finite amount of time.

    Likewise there’s no real improvement to be made to diesel power generators (which are a very mature technology!). The problem was their location, as far as I know, not any failing in the generators themselves.

    And of course no improvement at all is necessary even for an identical setup, as long as it’s not in a place where you get tsunamis…

    • Al Terego says:

      Sigivald, I haven’t seen any solid info on the nature of the backup systems’ failure, and really, does it matter? Failure due to yadayadayadayada = failure.

      But the “finite” service life of the battery banks must be about zero hours, as the first reports cited the failures of the gens and batteries the day after the quake.

      That generators are a “mature technology” was exactly my point…all the hooha about the reactors obfuscated that a method of keeping that old tech protected, running and generating power for the cooling systems would have possibly ameliorated the whole nuke focus so that attention could be paid to the actual here and now suffering and tragedy that has been so deftly shunted aside.

      Probably want to forget about “not in a place where you get tsunamis” as the solution though, when we’re talking about an island nation that is guaranteed to be afflicted with more than their share of shakers…and more importantly the concommitant tsunamis that follow, so common and expected that they even have a special name for them over there, but I can’t think of it right now…


      • Arkh says:

        I read that the batteries lived 8 hours. The backup generators which should have got there during this time did not. And then shit started to get bad.

        • aczarnowski says:

          I read they did get backups there. But they had the wrong plugs on the ends of the sparky bits. Doh.

          Not a technical fault, a planning fault.

      • Leatherneck says:

        I agree with what you said. Would it be too hard to put the gensets up on the second deck in a tsunami zone?


      • Sigivald says:

        Yes, sure.

        But my point was that we don’t need to “improve generators and battery banks”. Just put the generators where they won’t get wet, and where the wiring connecting them to the pumps can’t get flooded out.

        And remember that while the whole nation’s coast is subject to tsunamis, it’s not flat and low like Florida.

        Go up a hundred meters anywhere and no tsunamis are ever going to hit. Japan’s inland areas are quite capable of supporting power plants, after all.

        (As Arkh already said, the batteries lasted something like 8 hours. Which is a hell of a long time for batteries running a giant pump set like that for several reactors.

        We could make all power plants have weeks worth of batteries in overreaction to this, but would the cost/benefit be there? I really, really doubt it.)

  10. Tommy says:

    I think if it shows the dangers of Nuclear Power, it also doubly shows the dangers of high speed rail.

  11. iismileyll says:

    Nukes are a finite source of power. Sure, its bigger than coal (and cleaner) but it definitely a finite amount of material on this planet that we can use to make these type of power plants.

    • aczarnowski says:

      *cough* Breeder reactor *cough*

      • iismileyll says:

        Yes it creativities more material, but you still have to “feed” it other material. What do you do when you run out of those materials to feed it? Yeah, it’ll last longer, but its still finite. It may also create significantly less waste, but it still creates it. Also, apparently to cool one you have to use liquid sodium.

        • aczarnowski says:

          OK, sure. But nothing is infinite. Hell, the sun will run out eventually too. Breeder reactors are as close to a primary, usable perpetual motion machine as we’re likely to get in the next lifetime. After that, the space people can help us level up.

        • Tam says:

          What do you do when you run out of those materials to feed it?

          Do you know what a “Shot Clock” is?

          That’s the human race’s shot clock right there. We have until the easily-mined fissionables run out to conquer the solar system, or it’s back to the caves. It’s as simple as that.

          There are two visions of the future of our species. I’m cheering for the one that doesn’t involve shoveling horse shit.

        • Außenseiter says:


          With breeder reactors, you could power civilization for (at least) tens of thousands of years.

          There are economical amounts of uranium even in seawater:

          There is thorium, which is more abundant.

          I’d say in those tens of thousands of years, someone’ll find out how to build a orbital elevator and then mine fissionables in other places too. Or maybe even how to use fusion.

          Then, with easier orbital access, you could get a lot of power from orbital solar arrays..

          Also, apparently to cool one you have to use liquid sodium.

          So? There’s a novel approach to heat-electricity conversion involving supercritical CO2 driving turbines. Apparently up to 50% more effective than steam turbines. CO2 and liquid sodium don’t react as violently as water and liquid sodium, moreover ,CO2 isn’t corrosive.

        • Tam says:


          Yes, that’s what I said.

          Thank you for repeating it in more pedantic and verbose form, however.

          (As I made clear, when I said “we”, I was speaking of our species. I’m not worried about anything running out in my lifetime.)

        • Außenseiter says:

          Sometimes writing too little puts you across as alarmist*… there is such a concept as a ‘shot clock’, but it won’t run out in millenia.

          *like these people:

  12. Fred2 says:

    A yet despite all the 100 % airtight arguments against them , somehow grid solar and wind continued to be pushed and despite all the arguments for it nuclear gets tied up in endless stupid knots.

    I wake up sometimes mumbling “make teh stupid stop” – when did we transition into the post-sanity world?

    • LittleRed1 says:

      When the makers of solar panels and of those giant pinwheels stop buying politicians. And when energy returns to being a scientific and technical topic rather than a religious one. Those would be my guesses.

    • Erik says:

      Airtight arguments? If only life were so conveniently simple.

      The trick with small-scale renewables is that you can trade a variable electrical bill for fixed-rate servicing on a capital investment. With retail electricity inflating at around 2% annually, this can work out in your favor during the debt-service phase and then go on to be a very low-cost producer once the note is paid off.

      The calculation for a utility is different since they need to produce at a much lower price in order to be competitive on the wholesale market.

      Solar makes great sense on a small to medium scale if well-sited. Polar and northern temperate latitudes are a poor choice, but elsewhere there’s typically enough sunlight at a high enough angle to make them cost-effective for a building owner. Net metering laws (and other top-down generating incentives) greatly accelerate payback, but those are quite the political issue and there’s clearly potential for abuse if everyone gets in on the game. I haven’t done the calculations for non- net metering states, but I suspect there’s still a reasonable break-even with the “wholesale cost avoided” rates they pay.

      Wind is tricky because small-scale wind generally isn’t cost-effective (unless you’re in a windy area and far enough from the grid to make extending a line prohibitively expensive). Wind turbines also require maintenance – both preventive and breakdown – adding to their overall cost. They’re really only economical at a large scale and when extremely well-sited, making them far better candidates for utilities. Near offshore generally has some of the best and most consistent wind, but suffers from NIMBY-ism (thanks, Ted Kennedy!) as well as being a harsh overall environment for construction and maintenance.

      Some other common renewables (such as micro-hydro) don’t make sense in the current electricity market and will remain in the realm of the extremely dedicated or those so far off the grid that conventional economics must be discarded.

      Neither technology will reach “baseline load” status due to their so-called intermittent nature and storing significant amounts of energy seems unlikely. But on a large scale, the behavior of both is predictable enough that grid operators can accommodate them to the benefit of the grid. Hydro power is like this already – many dams operate at a baseline level for their predictable lowest flow rate in their dry season then switch to load-following or peaking operation during the rainy season – or they generate power as a secondary function (ala Hoover Dam) and their production is dictated by flood-control demands.

      All that being said, I’m in favor of more nuclear plants with advanced, passively-safe designs and the ability to economically reprocess fuel. As a nuclear power, the United States shouldn’t be so afraid to use reactor designs that could potentially lead to plutonium or enriched uranium production – we seem to have a good grasp on accountability and security within our nuclear power industry as is. The primary weaknesses of the Mark I containment system that the Fukushima plant deployed are known (and were known decades prior to the ongoing crisis) and can be readily avoided in future designs.

  13. Glamdring says:

    Orbital Solar power and fusion are both fairly long term potential sources of go juice from what I understand.

    But you have to put the $$$$$$ into R&D.

  14. MarkHB says:

    Yes, well. You’re quite correct, but as with anything the political hay to be made today is vastly more important than the survival of the species tomorrow.

    Tam, once again, had a 0% CEP on the head of the nail with her Shot Clock analogy. That’s the time we’ve got. And with the usual wean of politicos seeing two votes ahead of the tip of their noses, waving TEH NOOKERLER flag… *shrugs*

    Frankly, I’m past caring. I just want to have a pleasant life, and not worry about it. Fucked if I’m having kids, though.

  15. Ruth says:

    I’ve got several nuclear power plants within a reasonable drive of me, but I’m not especially worried about what a natural disaster would do to them. If a big enough earthquake hit to cause them problems I’d have alot more to worry about than the plants. Now operator failure is a different issue entirely…..

    My husband and I do plan to put up solar and wind arrays on our property as soon as we can afford to, more to cut our personal bills than anything else, but I don’t really see them as a widescale solution to the problem!

  16. Marja says:

    Maybe we should just listen to the greenies and do what they want. My guess is that they would lose support very fast once the brownouts and blackouts became regular.

  17. Marja says:

    To clarify: exactly what they want. Let’s not only stop building new plants, but also shut down all the old ones, and not only nuclear plants but also the coal burning ones so we can stop mining for coal. Shut down everything that pollutes, and start replacing them with these sustainable green versions and also start cutting down on using power.

    After a few years living with that, well, the hard line ideologists would presumably keep faith, but for most normal people ‘green’ would probably stay out of favor for at least a generation.

    I do think they had good points in the beginning, but humans do seem to have this habit of going from one extreme to another. One day the ideal is to tame all of the nature, a few people point out that there may be some weak points with that, give that thought a few generations to grow and suddenly we are where people shouldn’t be allowed to do anything at all to or with nature (combined with that other newish idea, that every human should live in total safety from cradle to grave, no matter what, no risks allowed ever).

    The only amusing bit here is that both ideas start from putting humans apart and above of ‘nature’. Why should we be that special? If you do think in terms of ‘Gaia’, well, the one thing with mother nature is that it seems always be trying to conquer new frontiers. Perhaps we are only Gaia’s first try to spread outside this one planet.

    Okay, I did have a somewhat annoying discussion earlier today with a friend of mine who goes fully with the ‘why should we go and destroy other planets, what gives us the right’ idea. Hence this side trip from the main point. I love my friends, but unfortunately most of them are very left leaning and rather green which makes me feel a bit lonely at times.

    • whamprod says:

      I think it is more fundamental than that. Those folks – the greenies – want to direct the course of your life. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that they got their way. Would it stop there? Of course not. They are convinced that they are enlightened and you are not, and that they are therefore destined by entitlement to continue directing the course of your life for you. Humanity is the Borg, and the greenies are its rightful masters.

      The difference between that collectivist thinking and libertarian or mainstream conservative philosophies is that
      the latter two recognize the individual’s the right to be the masters of their own fates.

      The thing is, green technology isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But what ought to determine the “badness” or “goodness” of an idea is whether or not it can be made to work as a practical alternative in the marketplace. To date, very few green technologies have been able to do that. As it turns out, they are held hostage to the same laws of thermodynamics as every other technology.

      Greenies turn a deliberately blind eye, for instance, to the realities that one cannot turn corn into ethanol fuel without A) burning petroleum fuel to do the work, and B) raising the cost of corn in the food marketplace as its consumption switches over from food to fuel. Nobody gets to be “the boss of me” if they are so deliberately obtuse.

      I desire clean air, clean water, safe food supplies, and all of that as much as the next guy; but I’m not going to replace my mid-sized SUV or my home’s appliances – all things in which I have a substantial investment – with acceptably green substitutes until those substitutes can at least equal the performance of what I already have, and at a reasonable price.

      Until then, I will keep using lead based ammo, driving gas or diesel powered vehicles, and washing my clothes in a machine.

  18. HushedPuppy says:

    Until we get atomic fusion licked, nuclear fission is the only game in town for energy that’s clean, infinitely renewable, not derived from fossil fuels, and suitable for our vast energy needs.

    Infinitely renewable? Hows that work? Clean? What about the waste? And only game? There’s hemp based fuels which don’t require any of the inputs corn requires. And as for “vast energy needs” – what if we turned off the lights when we aren’t using them?

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