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Sally's Journal
July 7th, 2008
01:55 pm


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Nuclear Power

Not Scary
We should have more
We should have less
Difficult to spell

(98 comments | Leave a comment)

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[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 01:04 pm (UTC)
Nuclear power is impressively scary, due to the fact that it somehow manages to be capable of two entirely different scary failure modes: huge earth-shattering kabooms that can level a city, and invisible death fields that you don't know you're walking into until it's already too late. Either of those on its own would be sufficient to label a technology as scary; the same technology offering both options is way above the call of duty.

None of which, of course, necessarily means that it should rationally be considered to be more dangerous than the alternatives. That has to be judged by considering the probability of each failure as well as the cost, and comparing it against the cost of the alternatives (and also factoring in the dangers caused in the absence of obvious failure, such as environmental cost). But from a pure emotional fear perspective? Hell yes, it's scary.
Date:July 7th, 2008 01:44 pm (UTC)
i know you know that nuclear power stations can't really go boom any more impressively and a gas-fired one.

maybe you should have said "is perceived to be capable of..." :)

the death fields, i'll give you without complaint though
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 01:13 pm (UTC)
I have to say that I get so caught up in the scariness of nuclear power that I kind of get drawn off the debate of whether we should have more or less of it. Part of me instinctively cries 'nooooooooo!', but part of me wants to listen to Sensible Arguments about why we should have more. *sigh* I have to say that if it was a choice between nuclear and sustainable/green energy, I'd be going with sustainable/green energy (wind turbines, tide power, solar power and the like) without a second thought - but that isn't the poll you've given us.
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 05:47 pm (UTC)
that isn't the poll you've given us

I don't think it's the poll the Real World has given us either, which in my opinion looks more like:

   [ ] some green energy and lots of nuclear power
   [ ] some green energy and lots of blackouts

My worry is that decisions might get made as if the poll were the 'green vs nuclear' one...

(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 01:20 pm (UTC)
While it is scary, and we probably should have more it is important to note that certain countries which do have significantly more can only manage this because they sell the excess base load to use, and we sell them peak load back because we've got gas generating plants that can be brought online very quickly.
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 01:40 pm (UTC)
We also have hydro plants that can come online fast, maybe we could make more use of that?

Also I think we could do more to try to smooth out electricity requirements over time; we presumably have some idea of who is using how much when, we could try to move some of the larger users to current low-use times.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 01:48 pm (UTC)
My support for more/less nuclear depends on what is a political possibility. That is, I roughly consider coal/oil/gas bad, nuclear better, renewables best. 100% renewable energy doesn't seem likely in the real world, so I'll settle for nuclear as the lesser evil.

Yes, it is scary. The problem is that figuring out just how scary is hopelessly politicised.
[User Picture]
Date:July 8th, 2008 06:47 am (UTC)
At present it's not a technical possibility either. Almost all renewable power cannot be turned on an off according to our schedule - we don't pick when the wind blows.

You can manage this if you have other power sources which you can control, and can use to compensate. But where we are right now if we had 100% renewable we would have alternate blackouts and power spikes which blew up substations and consumer electronics.

Of course in time we'll probably find ways of getting round this problem, but until then we'd best have something non-renewable in the system.
Date:July 7th, 2008 01:50 pm (UTC)
Difficult to spell? You should have included Difficult to Pronounce.

"We need a new, clear understanding of the situation, not just 'nuke you'".
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 02:15 pm (UTC)
I worry that despite having less in the way of immediate emissions than gas and coal I'm not sure we've definitely worked out what to do with the waste. I particularly don't like the idea of reprocessing waste from nuclear power into supplies for nuclear weapons.

We worry about coal and gas running out soon, but what is the timescale for us running out of nuclear fuel?

I'm also concerned at the cost and environmental damage caused by building new nuclear power stations to replace old gas/coal ones that still work OK. They have to be significantly more environmentally sound in order to warrant that. Though if we need to build new ones anyway then I presume it's not too dissimilar to the costs of building gas/coal ones. Can we make coal/gas plants more efficient? Can we reduce power consumption instead?

And yeah, I'm scared of them, accidents are unlikely to happen, but the consequences if they do are bad enough to make me very nervous indeed.

But overall I think they're possibly necessary.

[Oh, and I do think we should continue to build renewable too, but that does seem somewhat limited in terms of meeting demand]

Edited at 2008-07-07 02:15 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 02:35 pm (UTC)
We've got between a few hundred and a thousand years of Uranium assuming we go with fast breeders and eventually develop the tech. to get Uranium out of the ocean. There's also the possibility of extraterrestrial Uranium (but obviously not of extraterrestrial oil/gas/coal). We need fewer nuclear power stations for the same output as oil/gas/coal stations but IIRC the cost is larger and the time scale is very long (we really should have started building more some time ago).

We don't know how much oil/coal/gas we have left, digging it up is getting more expensive but maybe our digging tech. will get better. Certainly motivation to improve it is getting better. Making less of a mess is probably possible (at a cost), getting more energy per kilo of fuel is much less likely.

On renewable energy - even were we to develop renewable power extraction technologies at the theoretical limit of energy extraction and plant them everywhere we can (no NIMBYism for us!) we (in the UK) would not have enough energy for our current uses. We have neither the tech. nor the will to use it; and apparently we don't have the will to reduce demand either. This sucks.

I'd overall prefer a reduction in use, but I'm resigned to going with more nuclear.

Random poking at the internet is stubornly refusing to provide me non-biased information on the subject of casualties due to different sorts of power generation (and in any case you would have to decide what kinds of illness to include). But a swift search suggests that the number of deaths directly connected to nuclear power generation is very small indeed (and almost entirely if not entirely from chernobyl), this could be an artefact of there being fewer nuclear power stations than other sorts - or it could just be that we all learned the hard way just how bad it can be, and put in place safeguards to prevent that happening again.
(Deleted comment)
Date:July 7th, 2008 10:13 pm (UTC)
Nuclear Fuel supplies are limited - something like 400 / 12,000 years depending on whether one uses reprocessing or not.
I've done some back of the envelope calculations on this, which you might find interesting. The relevant post is over here.
(Deleted comment)
Date:July 7th, 2008 10:20 pm (UTC)
I don't like nuclear because of the dealing with the waste issues more than the "go boom" or the "invisible death fields" (as mentioned by [Bad username: simont"]). I don't think we should be creating an almost impossible to deal with product for our descendants to deal with just so that we can have "luxuries" now.
Are you aware that coal power stations produce 100 times as much radioactive 'waste', and that this waste is emitted directly in to the atmosphere (i.e. the environment where everyone lives) rather than being neatly contained?

My own personal opinion is that the arguments about nuclear waste are enormously overblown, especially when facts like the comparison with how much radioactivity is being pumped in to the environment by coal (which no one seems to have noticed or be too bothered above) are taken in to account.
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 02:56 pm (UTC)
Not nearly as scary as "nucular" anything!
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 02:57 pm (UTC)
Nuclear is scary, fossil is bad, renewables are good. I don't think there's a cat's chance in hell of getting the renewables online in sufficient quantity in time, and so I'm resigned to another generation of nuclear.
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
My boss says the medium-term answer is 25% assorted renewables, 50% nuclear and 25% gas, all modulo 25% energy conservation. This seems like the best achievable medium-term outcome to me.

And then the next generation of infrastructure can involve revolutionary renewables, and power lines from the solar fields of Africa to the offshore wind farms of Northern Europe and all sorts of exciting things like that!

But nuclear scares me, because Bjoern went on a cycling tour of French and Belgian reactors, and he consequently became anti-nuclear because he says the staff are just like those portrayed in the Simpsons.
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 11:16 pm (UTC)
I don't see how it can be practical to run a power line from Africa to the UK. To get a tolerable efficiency, you'd either have to make the cable very thick, which would require too much metal, or run the electricity at a ludicrously high voltage, in which case the cable would be worryingly prone to kill people.

Maybe you could turn the energy into a laser and put a geostationary satellite at the right point to reflect it to a receiving station in the UK?
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Expand
Date:July 7th, 2008 05:24 pm (UTC)
A few interesting facts about stuff nuclear, (but not particularly relevant to anything):

Coal power stations generate a greater quantity of radioactive waste (in terms of total committed activity) than nuclear power stations, in fact one coal powered power station will produce more than a nuclear one. The fly ash concentrates uranium and thorium (and decay products) from natural mineral sources. Of course, nuclear power waste is more concentrated, and so scarier.

It's not legal to build nuclear plants in most of Cornwall, as even before you'd brought in any material you'd have violated safe operating practices, as the background is over UK operating limits.

Much more dangerous than nuclear power stations in practice are the Iridium, Cobalt and Caesium sources used in radiotherapy, weld-inspection, nuclear batteries, and sterilization. These sources are lost, stolen, or found in odd places at an incredible rate. I can think of incidents in Iran (weld source discovered by maint worker), Belarus (sterilizer activated whilst operator in room), Israel (ditto), Bolivia (welding radiation source with faulty container transported on a bus, on a bus because they're not allowed on planes), El Salvador (delapidated sterilizer repaired by people who didn't understand radiation), Estonia (thieves breaking into nuclear dump), Brazil (radiotherapy source stolen for scrap, smashed open and then given to friends and family to play with because it glowed in the dark), Russia (stealing lead lining from casing of thermal generators in lighthouses), and various former USSR republics (many discarded Red Army sources) off the top of my head, in the past twenty years where there was serious injury or death, I'm sure I've forgotten some, and many more (eg the UK Leeds incident) which narrowly avoided it.

The scary thing about them is that many of the massive, horrible injuries essentially involved just holding a piece of normal looking metal for some time. I guess they're not common in the global scale of things, but as far as scariness is concerned, the apparent inocuousness must put it up there.

(If anyone's worried this is research for
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 05:30 pm (UTC)

I grew up not far down the road from Sizewell, so 'nuclear' doesn't mean 'scary' to me so much as 'big grey concrete buildings with piers running into the sea' (and more recently 'interesting futuristic domes').

I think we need more nuclear because it's the only thing with any chance at all of providing enough electricity in a decade's time. Specifically we need at least to build enough new power stations to replace the ones which are approaching end-of-life. (I suspect that in fact many of those will be reassessed and allowed another five or ten years running time because the alternative will be blackouts.) [This graph shows that a lot of our current nuclear capacity is going to go away (note that already some 'extensions' have appeared -- they're the red bits). Nuclear is currently providing about 20% of our electricity. Even if you believe that renewables will reach the 15% target by 2020 that's only an extra 10%. (In fact the Renewals Advisory Board has just predicted we'll only get to 6% renewables by 2020 with current policies, 14% at absolute best and with huge policy changes.) Gas currently provides 40% of our electricity but North Sea gas production is falling and we are already a net importer, so I don't think that's very likely to take up the slack. Oh, and 8.5GWe of our current 28GWe of coal generation is going to be shut down in 2016 because it's not economic to make it meet EU emissions regulations. That's another 10% of our current total generating capacity. (Disclaimer: most of the figures here taken from theoildrum.com, although I have no reason to think they're inaccurate.)

[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 10:46 pm (UTC)
But it will take more than ten years to build a nuclear power station. The waiting list for pressure vessels was, last I heard, ten years, and there has to be a delay between the pressure vessel being available and the power station running.

The clock, of course, doesn't start unless someone in government decides that a nuclear power station will be built. I don't think they will have the political will until there is a real scare, such as rolling power cuts lasting days or weeks and likely to be repeated.

Then a power station could be built, with a crash program, in maybe 11 years - if the public enquiries, appeals, protests and so on an be done in under about 6 years, which I doubt.
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 06:38 pm (UTC)
More Research Required.
[User Picture]
Date:July 7th, 2008 06:47 pm (UTC)

I think nuclear energy's safety record in places like Britain is relatively good compared to other forms of power generation (e.g. Aberfan, Piper Alpha) and excellent compared to other aspects of life - if we held transport to the death rate attributable to nuclear energy then I rather imagine nobody would ever be allowed to drive anywhere.

Its record in e.g. the former USSR is poorer, of course, but we can't control that by refusing to build nuclear reactors here.

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